Guest Blog: Introducing Kenya’s Migrant and Refugee Artists: Examples of Hope and Creativity
Guest blog and artwork by Victor Ndula. Victor is a local and international award winning editorial cartoonist, illustrator and comic artist who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. He is also a visual artist mentor under UNHCR’s Artists for Refugees programme.
Migration if often seen as an unfortunate phenomenon, however, I am a beneficiary of a less tragic form of migration. For me, migration is synonymous with creativity and innovation. The multi-cultural migratory environment in which I grew up in Kenya shaped my view of life and had an impact on my art.
The migratory history of Kenya’s urban centres has also shaped the art work and livelihoods of a group of refugee artists. This has included a group of artists involved in our innovative programme, Artists for Refugees.
As discussed at a recent Migration Conversation in Nairobi led by the Migration Leadership Team, their work shows that the impact of art on migration and of migration on art cannot be over-emphasised. This is a conversation that we need to resource and take forwards.
Urban migration and cultural melting pots
The process of colonisation in Kenya reduced access to arable land and consequently created a labouring wage class that depended on new types of work for survival. The 1960’s and 1970’s ushered a movement of wage seeking workers from rural Kenya towards its urban centres.
The silver lining to this displacement was that a perfect cocktail of diverse cultures converged in urban areas. Kenya is host to at least 42 tribes, in addition to several more recent additions. This is the setting that I grew up in after my parents moved to the city.
Fast forward to present day Kenya and a group of different nationalities have also converged in the well-known refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab. Many have fled conflicts and droughts in neighbouring countries in the East African region, such as Somalia and South Sudan. Other refugees who have migrated to Kenya live in urban areas.
The plight of these more recent arrivals is more difficult, and the circumstances of their flight are less pleasant than my own experience. Their migrations are not just motivated by finding work, but safety.
But one thing that unites the different movements of populations over time in Kenya is the value of art in documenting and making sense of their experience.
Art and community
I have had the privilege of interacting with a special group of refugee artists in Kakuma and Dadaab, and in urban settings for close to five years now. This work has been sponsored by the programme Artists for Refugees under the auspices of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Kenya, UNHCR. We run workshops and promote the work of aspiring refugee artists.
To the creative table they have brought along their art, together with stories of resilience, determination and evidence of a human spirit that is indefatigable.
The years have come and gone very fast. We have made art together, but most important of all, I have seen the impact that their art has had on their communities and local economies too.
Freedom of expression has been central to our work and the range of artistic outputs took many forms.
Elias Lemma from Ethiopia was one participant in our programme. He would bring in T-shirts and print beautiful graphics of Ethiopian historical figures including Haile Selassie, Makonnen Wolde Mikael and the Queen of Sheba. He would display these at the local coffee shop in the Kakuma refugee camp.
In this way, the young ones learnt about their heritage and Elias could make a living from his art. His art instilled a sense of pride in Ethiopian culture among the refugees.
Alpha Mukange from the Democratic Republic of Congo paints beautiful landscapes of his native country, and in sharp contrast, draws painful abstracts of war and gender-based violence that have affected his community of origin. He speaks of the ‘ideal Congo’ which he seeks to preserve for future generations. This is a country rich in nature and wildlife, as in the Virunga National Park near where he grew up. Through his painting he educates, advocates, exhorts and encourages.
Flora Frezghi is a refugee from Eritrea. Her work is focused on beautiful mandala art: spirals and shapes spinning out from a central point, order in chaos. Such intricate artwork is supposed to evoke feelings of peace. In its very effeminate nature, its lends strong voice to peaceful advocacy. Art, she says, ‘brings out the best in me.’
Zuleikha Hussein from Somalia is also inspired by art forms in her native culture. She pushes the boundaries of henna art, creating new forms and designs. One day, as well as earning her livelihood through art production, she hopes to be a teacher.
Refugee artists engaged in the programme have employed a range of other media both rooted in their cultures of origin and inspired from abroad. Hassan Yare from Somalia had a successful art career in Mogadishu before the war broke out. He uses his art to challenge the political state-use of art as propaganda, choosing to depict realistic scenes from everyday life instead of idealised situations. In one comic, he narrates local issues affecting refugees. One picture depicts with humour the consumption of chicken as an alternative to the more expensive culturally accepted goat meat. These small issues are important to the lives of refugees.
Mulugeta Yifru from Ethiopia uses his art skills to produce many of the signs in Dadaab refugee camp. He employs a blend of illustrations and sign writing that helps communicate where the literacy level is a challenge due to conflict related disruption to education back home. In this way, his art speaks in a language beyond words.
The value of art
It is difficult to empirically measure the impact these artists have had in their communities and local economies, but it is plain to see and to feel the difference their art has made.
Our backgrounds as migrant artists are different, but I am proud to illustrate these diverse artists’ profiles. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and, despite our differences, as artists we share this sentiment and common language of resilience, creativity and hope. The experience of migration has certainly shaped our work, but it does not define it. As they have shown me time and time again, there are no limits to artistic imagination.
Please note a summary of the Nairobi Conversation is also available for download.