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February 20, 2019

I stopped painting disasters when my work turned into reality

The artist at the opening of the pioneer artists of East Africa exhibition
The artist at the opening of the pioneer artists of East Africa exhibition

“Art is to transfer what is in your mind into something which is viewable, somewhere they can see what I am thinking in my mind.”

A mantra that Richard Onyango lives by. An extremely gifted artist, Onyango has had no formal training or even a college education. He merely honed his artistic skills and refined his camera-like memory even when the returns were minimal.

Born in 1960 in Western Kenya, Onyango’s family moved to Tana River District when his father got a job with the National Irrigation Board. “He was a water operator technician of drinking water, treating the water and making it clean,” says Onyango.  It was at the NIB workshop that he developed a life-long love for automobiles and heavy machines that has heavily influenced his artwork.

During the interview, Onyango points to a painting depicting an NIB station. “This is where I grew up. I used to come from our house and spend a lot of time looking at these things,” says the Malindi-based artist. The picture features tractors, trucks and a tall crane with drag-shovel called the Priestman Tiger. Incredibly, Onyango is able to remember all the names of individual models of big equipment.

Looking at Richard Onyango’s art work of antique automobiles and machinery you can almost feel the excitement that must have coursed through his boyhood mind as he watched the real vehicles operating in rural Tana River District.

What is just as fascinating about his intricate creations, is that three decades later, Onyango has managed to reproduce the minute features of archaic machines based purely on memories from his childhood. “In those days there were very few cameras and my father was not very rich to get me a camera. Everything I saw recorded in my mind,” he remembers. A selection of Onyango’s paintings and models of old buses, cars and heavy machinery is on currently on display at the Nairobi Gallery, formerly the Old PC’s office, next to Nyayo House. The vehicle reproductions are fashioned from, “the rubbish we throw away, “says Onyango. He has used recycled curtain railings, cooking fat containers, aerosol cans, rods, wires, and even rubber shoe soles that are perfect for making the giant tractor tyres.

Often described as having a high imagination, Onyango is very retrospective and paints things that were before his time. “His post-impressionistic paintings evoke nostalgia as they take us through an adventure of the artists’ own personal life experiences,” says Lydia Gatundu-Galavu, curator at the Nairobi National Museums.

Onyango’s works have exhibited across the world but surprisingly holds very few shows in Kenya. His Drosie Series of paintings, a collection that captures the brief romance with his late buxom brunette sweetheart, have been very well received overseas. It is one of his most famed works. Drosie was his girlfriend and their romance can only be described as an intense and incredible high energy, lust-filled situation. He wanted to marry her but her parents would not hear of it. It can be said that for the period that they were together, Onyango was at his most flamboyant in terms of creativity.


Another of his projects has been the Disasters Stories, depicting his favourite topic of machinery but in situations of fatal mishaps involving buses, trains and airplanes. “But I no longer paint the disaster stories because I have painted them so many times and they happen,” reveals Onyango.


He is referring to the eerie coincidence of the subjects in his Disaster drawings, actually happening in real life. In 2009, for example, he was drawing a plane accident when he saw on the television that a passenger airplane had made an emergency landing in the Hudson River running through New York City. Coincidence? Thoroughly shaken, Onyango says, “I went to a basin and washed my hands and said, no more.” Since then, he has never done anymore disaster paintings.

For the ongoing Pioneer Artist series at the Nairobi Gallery, however, Onyango has chosen to focus on retrospective works. They illustrate bygone times that marked his 1960s childhood: upcountry vaccination campaigns; cross-country road trips in Leyland buses through forests thick with herds of elephant; Mombasa Old Town on the cusp of independence with the Kenyan and British flags hanging side by side.

His paintings from the Land Rover Adventures series, recall the most widely used vehicle at the time, the bush-hardy, canvas-topped Land Rovers, that were a favourite of the police force and the colonial administration.

The Bus Series hark back to the days of Tana River Bus Services (TRB) the only transport plying the Garissa-Galole-Garsen route, using a single bus famously named Kangalikya. The now defunct TRB, and Kangalikya in particular, is what inspired him to start drawing. 

“It was a very big deal, everyone would just come out to see Kangalikya,” recalls the slender-framed Onyango with shoulder-length hair slicked back at the sides. “I wanted to have a picture of it but my father could not afford to buy me a camera. So I start putting these images in my book and that is how I started art. This was a hobby to me, it was just an excitement. I didn’t know that art was very important,” he admits.”

Notwithstanding his humble beginnings, Onyango was no different from any young boy fascinated by cars and trucks, except that he harnessed his two passions, machines and art, into a lifelong career despite limited formal instruction. This process began by chance through a connection with the same overland buses he was so enamoured of. While in high school in Mombasa in the 1970s, Onyango sold his drawings to TRB bus conductors and drivers to supplement the monthly stipend from his father. A member of the bus management was so impressed with this work that he granted the young man free rides, a privilege he enjoyed until the company folded up some years later.

Over the years Onyango has had multiple careers as a band drummer, truck driver, farmer and wood worker, in part to supplement his living as an artist.

Inability to access formal training plagues many local artists though it need not be the end of the road. “Formal art training enhances inborn artistic skills but it is not a prerequisite to professional art practice,” says Galavu. “There are several local examples of artists who did not study art yet they have made great strides in their career. And there are famous 19th and 20th century artists such as Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo and Jean Michel Basquiat who did not study art formally.”


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