Monday, 23 July 2018


BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 23 July 2018)

In less than five years, Brush tu Art Studio has become one of Nairobi’s leading cultural venues for the visual arts. That was plain to see last weekend when they held one of their annual Open Houses, humbly entitling it ‘Pyenga’ (the Sheng term for ‘small’)

But there was nothing small about the display at Brush tu’s Buru Buru space, which the resident artists recently expanded by renting the next door-duplex and tearing down an adjoining wall. Now it could easily accommodate the most recent works of all thirteen artists based at Brush tu, eleven of whom are part of the permanent crew plus two interns, twins by the name of Joe and Andrew N’gang’a.

One of the most successful, democratic and open-minded groups of artists around, Brush tu’s amiable atmosphere of inspired artistry is infectious as one could see last Sunday when the corner house on Ol Leleshwa Road in Buru Buru Phase 1 got jam-packed with a slew of leading local artists.

There were poets, photographers, painters, sculptors and print-makers who came visiting, all intent on seeing how well their creative peers are doing. Trekking upstairs, one could see the genius works of Michael Musyoka on one side and those of Peteros Ndungu on the other.

But it’s downstairs where the Studio has most effectively maximized their space to accommodate everyone from Boniface Maina (one of the Brush tu founders along with Musyoka and David Thuku who’s currently based at Kobo Trust but is a proud alumni of BTAS), Waweru Gichuhi, Kimani Ngaru, Moira Bushkimani, Elias Mung’ora, Abdul Kipruto, Sebawali Sio, Emmaus Kimani, Lincoln Mwangi and the twins.

One key to Brush tu’s success is the modesty of the artists. Despite their having both solo and group shows at Circle Art, Nairobi and Polka Dot Galleries, the Attic, the Art Space, Kenya Art Fairs and elsewhere, each artist retains his or her commitment to their art, to their process and to moving forward fearlessly, experimenting with new ideas and media.

Indeed, there was a wide range of both experimental work and works in progress at the Open House. The surrealists in the house, Boniface and Michael each are moving on their own tracks (downstairs and up). Meanwhile, the ‘brush tu’ concept (of brush referring to ‘painting’ and tu meaning ‘only’) has expanded to now include sculptors like Kimani, print-makers like Kipruto, photographers like Emmaus and even a few so-called ‘junk artists’ who work with recycled ‘found objects’. Those include artists like Moira who recycled goat jaws and cow bone to create a fascinating work like ‘Bearer of Inspiration’ and Joe Ng’ang’a who transformed rusty mabati (metal) sheet into a ‘painting’ enhanced by acrylic paint and a sharp knife.

Even Boni Maina refashions found objects, including an old damaged toilet seat, although unlike Marcel Duchamp who deemed his toilet seat a ‘work of art’, Boni simply covers over the seat with bubble paper and uses it as a sort of throne from which he can contemplate new ideas for his art.

There are still several painters among the group. They include Elias Mung’ora (although he’s lately been experimenting with pencil and ink), Sebawali (who with Moira is one of the first female artists to join BTAS), Peteros, Lincoln, Waweru (whose nudes have a luster, alluring line and bronze glow to them) and of course, Michael who’s already creating frame-worthy ‘sketches’ to follow from his recent exhibition at The Attic Art Space.

One key turning point for BTAS came in 2016 when they got assistance from the Danish Embassy enabling them to conduct a year’s worth of artist residencies in 2017. Inviting both Pan-African and Kenyan artists to apply, the group quickly upped their game. They were already working well together, developing an arts library made up of both books and DVDs, and sharing ideas. But now they began opening up to the whole city and arts community, intent on informing their guests about the wide range of talents at work around Nairobi.

In a sense, Brush tu has done more to bring together a fiercely independent Kenyan arts community. It’s not a formally organized group that they intentionally fashioned, but by their openness, artistry and genial wit, they’ve brought lots of fresh air to the local art scene.

Just ask the women. Both Sebawali and Moira have been warmly welcomed into the fold, each finding the space both mentally and physically to produce original works that add flavor and feeling to the Studio.

Friday, 20 July 2018



By Margaretta wa Gacheru (20 July 2018 for Business Daily)

Some people go to Chicago specifically to visit the Art Institute to see its vast collection of Impressionist paintings. Others go to see the city’s spectacular skyline with all its myriad skyscrapers, including the gigantic Trump Towers. And still others go to Chicago to visit its illustrious universities, including Northwestern (with its Medill School of Journalism) and the University of Chicago (home of more Nobel prize winning scientists per square foot than anywhere else in the world).
I go to visit family and dear friends. But in the process of seeing them, I recently heard about The Dollar Tree (one of many brands of Dollar stores scattered across the US).
I had just spent $25 on a pair of magnifier reading glasses when I sat with a good friend who also used magnifiers on occasion. She pulled hers out and I admired them, complaining in the process about how I had just spent a bundle buying mind in Whole Foods, Jeff Bezos’s (of Amazon fame) recent acquisition. She then told me about the local dollar store where she got her magnifiers for literally one dollar!
Our glasses looked exactly alike. Only the price tag differed. So I confess, from that moment on, my addiction to the Dollar Tree took root. I initially went for the magnifiers, but then something happened. I am normally not a shopper, hate hanging out at dress shops and malls. But I further confess, I was raised by a ‘bargain hunter’. That was my mother who could never pass up a good bargain. She wasn’t hard core, meaning she didn’t clip coupons like some. But she liked to save money whenever she could, so I grew up appreciating the idea of frugality rather than spending lavishly.
Nonetheless, the change that came over me that day was stunning. The store itself was huge with many aisles, each labeled clearly so you didn’t have to think hard. All you had to do was open your mind and remember what you’d previously convinced yourself you really didn’t need to buy.
Like those sunglasses and the magnifiers that came in all sizes, colors and magnifying powers. But after that, with all those aisles to meander through, there was no telling what you rediscovered you really ‘needed’.
Like the ear phones (or buds) that you tended to break after a fortnight. They came neatly packaged, again in assorted colors and designs, and each costing only a dollar. There were assorted kitchen items, from utensils to dish towels to hot-pads and welcome mats. There were bath items of seemingly limitless variety, cosmetics good for the skin, eyes, hair, toes and nails. There were even aisles filled with canned foods, from tuna and sardines to chicken, turkey and spam. Drinks were also in abundance, only they were all soft drinks, no alcohol.
Nonetheless, one could easily get intoxicated if you had a few extra dollars to spend. There were a wide variety of school supplies, assorted cleaning soaps, liquids, lotions and pads. There was even a frozen food section where one could find pizza and what Americans call ‘TV dinners’, meals with scoops of corn and beans and beef or chicken wrapped in thin aluminum trays that you could stick in an oven for maybe half an hour, and then you’d have a meal and no dishes to wash. You’d just toss out the aluminum tray in the trash.
But then you have to ultimately ask yourself how did dollar stores come into being and how come everybody doesn’t save money by buying at these convenience stores that can save you a fortune if you stop before all your cash runs out.
First, I guess the dollar stores exist because of overproduction (the problem that capitalism was bound to have, according to Karl Marx who wrote over a century ago). The machinery is capable of producing so much, but the demand rarely can meet the supply provided by the manufacturers. So rather than destroy all those unsold goods, why not make something (rather than nothing) for all the trouble. Thus, the dollar store was born
But why don’t more people shop at dollar stores? Well, be assured, you will find all kinds of people shopping at The Dollar Tree. But there’s far more prestige and social status shopping at the Mall or on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile than at the Dollar Tree. Either way, if you have a little cash, Chicago can be a consumer’s paradise.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Parenting to maximize children’s full potential

By Margaretta Swigert-Gacheru, Ph.D (3 July 2018)

Practically every parent that I know in Kenya wants their children to have an education that will maximize their child’s full potential.
They are invariably prepared to make tremendous sacrifices to ensure their children get into school, which is not an easy proposition since the best schools cost far more than most families can afford.
Even the most humble local schools compel parents to pay for school fees (equivalent to tuition) plus school uniforms and books.
Many a young Kenyan has dropped out of school for lack of funds to cover those costs. Ironically, that’s when many young men and women have no choice but to enter the informal economy and devise ingenious means to earn an income. There is much that has been written about Kenya’s informal sector workers and their resourceful ways of surviving. And again, one would have to say that those informal sector (known as jua kali) workers have learned that technique of inventing ingenious means to earn a living from their parents, particularly their mothers who tend to be the main breadwinners in many African homes.
But even before children go to school, their home environments tend to be highly enlightening. Kids learn to take responsibility for their siblings’ child care since their parents (mainly their mothers) are either working outside on their farms or looking for basic essentials like water and cooking fuel in the form of firewood.
Children learns early on how much their parents sacrifice to get them into school so they tend to feel responsible for working hard, doing well academically and maximizing their own potential. They understand education is the key to their future success and the main means for fulfilling their human potential.  
In many African homes, grandparents still live in the same household as their children and grandchildren. Often, those elders have stories to tell, be they in the form of folk tales or family histories, songs, riddles or poetry. If children are blessed with having a wise grandparent at home, then evenings are not filled with TV and computer games. They are filled with storytelling that enriches children’s imaginations and equips them with wisdom and knowledge that may have been passed down over generations.
In many cases, parents may not have funds to buy their children toys. But this reality often leads children to create toys of their own. Many Kenyan artists that I know have stories to tell about how they created cars, buses, trucks and even toy bicycles by recycling bottle tops for wheels, tin cans for vehicle bodies and wires from sundry sources to make the skeletal infrastructure of their vehicles.
Then they’d have car competitions, inspired by the annual Safari Rally races that were started during colonial times and which thousands of Kenyans still stand by roadsides around the country just to see the competing cars drive by.
Meanwhile, I know mothers who wanted their daughters to have toy dolls which they would make out of old socks and yarn unwound from old sweaters. None of those daughters pestered their moms for the latest iteration of the American Girl doll. They would just be happy to have what their mothers created for them.
Most Kenyan youth tend to grow up out of doors since the climate is temperate (given the country stratles the Equator). Parents often provide them with plastic bags that the youth can use to create their own footballs so they can play soccer (which Kenyans call football) throughout the school holidays.
If families are in town, one important gift that parents give their children is a love of books. This applies mainly to families having educated (literate) parents and who also live in towns having libraries (which are relatively rare). I know parents who drop their children at the library and promise to return after two hours of shopping. The children love having the library to themselves. Depending on the size, structure and library policies, the youth love to explore the book shelves and discover the love of learning and reading on their own time in that conducive space.
If parents are more affluent, one of the best things they can do is find out what sorts of afternoon and weekend classes are available in the community for youth. Ideally, the child loves the possibility of learning a new musical instrument, new language, new sport or even a new style of dance after school. Allowing the child to see that he or she has options (rather than pushing them into what the parent wants them to do) is a good idea. But then there are times when the parent can see their child is being influenced by peer pressure to try none of the above. That’s when the parent may want to step in and encourage the child to do one project or other.
It always helps when a child sees his or her parent practicing what they preach. For instance, if they take their child to the library, does that child see his/her parent reading? Do the parents play musical instruments, belong to a ballet company or sing in the community choir or amateur theatre group?
There is nothing more enlightening and enriching for a child, nothing that can stimulate an incentive on their part to maximize their own potential than to see one or both of their parents practicing some particular skill, be it in the form of a hobby or professionally. The child picks up on their practices implicitly, like a sponge. So it makes sense for the parent who wants their child to maximize and fulfill his/her full potential, to continue striving to fulfill their own potential and learn new things on a daily basis.