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  • Writer's pictureMonica

From Milk cans to Dinosaur-sized Wildlife Sculptures and a Gallery in the middle of Nairobi - An interview with Gallerist Kioko Mwitiki

Hi Kioko, thank you for having us! We’re sitting here in the wonderful open space of your gallery in Nairobi today — tell us your story:

I’m Kioko Mwitiki. I’m an artist and sculptor, I went through formal art school, have a degree in fine art, from a local university here and even ended up teaching art. I grew up in the Rift Valley, the Southern part of Kenya where there is a lot of wildlife and my childhood really shaped my vision of what art is and where to find inspiration. However, my commercial art journey started after getting expelled because of student unrest at college and the only job I could get was working as an apprentice welder in a milk can factory.

After and between shifts of welding milk cans, I would use scraps and junk pieces of metal to weld different shapes and forms and experiment with small sculptures. With my early childhood memories from the bush, newfound skill of welding and art knowledge I was able to conceptualize ways of expressing myself. Best of it: it could be done affordably — as I was using cheap, leftover material and was still working and able to make ends meet, which offered me a unique safe zone.

The first sculptures I made were mangled up and no one really cared much about them. One day a white guy came by and asked who the pieces were by — we met and he asked what the pieces cost — of course I had no idea what to charge. I gave him an arbitrary number, and he bought the pieces and came back a few weeks later asking the famous question: can you do more of this?

A couple of months later I moved to the city and was walking past a gallery and saw some familiar-looking pieces for sale through the window — and there were my pieces. As you can imagine with a hefty price tag, way beyond what they had been purchased for. At that moment I realized I could make enough money just doing what I enjoyed most and decided to make my own gallery — no intermediaries.

So that was the start of your art career and this space, what happened next?

Back then in the 80s, no one else was really welding, so I had a bit of a monopoly if we’re honest. I had a workshop where I did smaller trinkets, and took commissions for larger things like wrought iron tables and all sorts of furniture. I could make money and do my art — which was a wonderful feeling.

Things just started rolling from there: exhibitions, interacting with other artists, getting referrals and so on. People started noticing me, and my sculptures started getting bigger and bigger — and one day I got a call from the San Diego Zoo in California...

Read the full story in the original publication from 18th March 2023 on medium here.

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