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.