By Margaretta wa Gacheru (May 2020)
In light of the lockdown and government restrictions on movement, most local artists must either work from home or out of doors.
That’s not a problem for graffiti artists like Brian ‘Msale’ Masasia despite the fact that his studio, behind the Kenya Railway Museum is normally a beehive of activity. But now it’s gone silent. Previously, the old derelict railway car, which Msale and his fellow graffiti artists, Kaymist and Thufu B, transformed into a funky art studio, was regularly filled with young aspiring artists who wanted to learn graffiti techniques from these street-art masters.
But right now, Msale has a different audience, message and agenda in mind. As usual, his primary platform for painting is Nairobi walls. But ever since the coronavirus shut down most of the graffiti painting and training at his railway studio, Msale has been painting with a simple message elsewhere.
The latest location where he’s been working outdoors is in Nairobi’s second largest slum, Mathare. His mission is to bring a greater degree of enlightenment to the local people in that one slum so they’ll be better informed about the life-threatening coronavirus and COVID-19.
“Not that Mathare residents are unaware of life-threatening diseases,” says Msale who was accompanied that day by a couple of other graffiti artists. “The people deal with deadly diseases like cholera, typhoid and malaria on a daily basis, so they may not understand the difference between them and COVID-19,” he adds.
One passer-by admits that if he had to make a choice, he’d choose buying food before buying a mask. But that doesn’t deter Msale.
“We want our mural to convey five simple points meant to keep people safe at this time,” says the artist who collaborates on this one wall with Mutua-Arts and his assistant Poolman. (“Those are the names I know them by,” Msale admits.)
The five points are integrated into the painting. They are to “stay at home, maintain social distancing, wash your hands regularly, cover your mouth whenever you cough and call 719 if you feel sick,” says the artist.
This mural, like the other four that Msale previously painted in Mathare, was conceived without sponsorship or donor support. “I just have an affinity for Mathare since it was the first place that I created graffiti art. I had been a third year [Kenyatta] University student attached to the studio of the graffiti artist Swift 9 [Elegwa] when Swift had a mural to paint in the valley and invited me along,” Msale adds.
Trained as a painter at KU, Msale says he learned about the aesthetics of fine art at University. “But I always knew that art could also be a means of informing and teaching. I learned that from my mother who was a pre-primary school teacher who used art to teach.”
So it seemed logical, once he and the country went into lockdown, there might be a means of employing his talent to convey a valuable message to people who he says are “forgotten” by the powers that be.
“I know people are prepared to play their part [in fighting the pandemic]. But if they don’t know what that part is, then they can’t play it,” says Msale who feels his murals are informing the locals about what they must do to protect themselves from this deadly virus. The idea, he says, is to reach people on the ground and help them to stay safe.
One of Msale’s friends who was born and raised in Mathare, Anthony Mwelu, is the one who helped him obtain paints for his murals.
From the outset, Msale was documenting the process of creating the COVID murals on Facebook and Instagram. It was one of the later murals that attracted the attention of a reporter with the British publication, The Guardian.
“We were already in the process of creating the fifth Mathare mural when The Guardian’s Duncan Moore asked if he could come along with us,” says Msale who introduced Moore and his video team to Lucas Odhiambo, of the Mathare Roots Youth Initiative.
“Lucas helped us find the wall where we painted this last mural in bright bold colors meant to attract people’s attention,” says the masked Msale.
“When I was painting the first mural, I rarely saw people wearing masks. Now I see many people wearing home-made kitangi masks,” Msale notes.