• Alpha believes people in Kenya do not know or understand art
Artist Alpha Odhiambo, 21, was born and raised in the Nairobi’s slum Kibera. “My father worked in Defence and my mother had a few little businesses. I became passionate about drawing and painting when I was about 7 or 8 in primary school during the Creative Arts lessons,” he said
The Creative Art subject is part of the primary school curriculum. However, schools rarely teach it. “At the age of 10, I got transferred to a school in Kibera and later to a secondary school. None of the schools offered students any art instruction. I was lucky when at 12, I was helped by Uweza Foundation. They supported me with art materials and introduced me to professional art. I began selling my work and with that money, paid all my secondary school fees, which encouraged my parents.”
“I have not gone to university or college to study art. I do not need to,” Alpha explains his superb knowledge of contemporary art. “I learn by visiting online exhibitions, galleries and sale houses. For example, I recently explored all there is at the Miami Beach Art Basel and followed art by the self-trained Cuban artist CB Hoyo. I am influenced by Warhol and Van Gogh, but my real hero is an American graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.”
Alpha believes people in Kenya do not know or understand art. He feels that art in Kenya “must be made public. Art must be available in daily life for everyone.” It must be taught in schools so tomorrow's adults will know how to appreciate and engage with art.
The media, too, should do much more to educate Kenyans about art. Key TV and radio shows should give their platforms to artists as well, not only to politicians or pop musicians. Alpha wants to start his own art magazine, called ‘ODH’ (after the first three letters of his name).
“It would show art made by Africans to Africans. Currently there is no such magazine. It would help teach Kenyans about art and also strengthen the Kenyan art market, which is currently virtually non-existent and a big challenge. Only 10 per cent of my art buyers are Africans.”
Odhiambo’s source of inspiration is his Kibera background. “Kibera is fun,” he smiles. “People are poor but they are happy, too.” His tightly populated paintings are not ‘happy’ but packed with the urban challenging and menacing existence. Odhiambo’s Afro-expressionists work appropriates drawing, painting and collage and marries text, image, abstraction and figuration. It is social commentary and critique that he uses as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences of life and human condition in Kibera and contemporary Kenya.
“I'm happy doing what I'm passionate about,” Alpha concludes, and this passion, as well as his immense creativity, is what makes this young talented artist among the top Kenyan artists to watch.
Alpha Odhiambo sells his art through his Instagram account, instagram.com/alpha_odh/, and on Facebook. The prices start at Sh50,000. Contact him on his email [email protected] to visit his studio in Westlands. Alpha donates 40 per cent of the sales to MASK art education charity www.mobileartschoolinkenya.org, which provides young Kenyans with opportunities to strengthen their creativity through art.
Alla Tkachuk is the Founder of MASK, [email protected]