Paul Onditi, one of a handful of Kenyan artists whose work was showcased at last year’s Venice Biennale of Art, describes his art as Afro-European and swears that both Ohangla and Classical music styles are essential for his creative process. He talks to Ivy Nyayieka about his journey from artistic kindergartener to successful artist with a long list of solo and group shows in Kenya, Europe and the U.S to his name.
How would you describe your work?
My work is a rather personal observation on the things I see and hear as well as my experiences both with people and the environment. So I try to interpret these into something visual
How do you like your coffee?
I like my coffee mild, not tough.
What is your favorite breakfast meal?
My favourite breakfast meal is broccoli soup. To wake up, I also like to have Kenyan coffee that is very crude and not refined. That has been my long term favourite.
Which would you prefer: coffee-flavored ice cream or coffee-flavored cake?
I would go for coffee-flavored ice cream.
What was the first form of art you engaged with?
When I went to nursery school, I did not have the privilege to have paper and crayons. Paint was not even within my imagination. I would go outside, get some dust and draw. I would call my mother, then a schoolteacher, to come and see. I hoped that she was going to like it as much as I did. I didn’t study Art in high school. I took Technical Drawing & Design, courtesy of my father who insisted on something professional. So today when it comes to composition, I can balance symmetry and asymmetry without a ruler.
Who is Smokey in your work?
Smokey is a representational character that I have worked with for many years in different backgrounds and scenes. He is a solitary character representing the state of human mind. There are little corners within my mind that only I access. And that’s the vacuum that I have been trying to understand. Smokey is not present in the pieces at the moment; he’s gone for a journey. Maybe he will show up. I don’t know. That is up to him to decide.
Why do you call your art Afro-European?
I’m Kenyan– born and bred. But I happened to have rediscovered myself as an artist when in Europe. I say rediscover because I was born an artist; I was not meant to be taught to become one. Then since Kenya didn’t have these solid institutions where someone could study art, I found myself in Europe. My art is now a fusion of what is inborn, which is very African and what is acquired, which is European.
What is the role of old media releases and imagery in your work?
The old recurrence within my work is just to show that nothing is new under the sun. When I was in high school, bell bottoms came into fashion. But our fathers also had worn bell bottoms, got bored and abandoned them. Then we thought, without proper research, we were doing something new.
Who are you listening to as you work?
I’m listening to Ohangla music. It is my favorite. But I have a huge music collection so I keep shifting. When I need some local inspiration I listen to Ohangla and Rhumba. When I need to move faster then I have pretty aggressive classical music. This studio is a big spot of chaos so I DJ for myself.
What are you working on now?
What I am working on right now is a project dubbed Calm in The Storm. It interrogates how I navigate times when there’s a lot of political confusion, social animosity and economic hardships.
Follow Paul Onditi on IG: @paulonditismokey