Contemporary art in modern Africa

The Times
Nairobi, Kenya

Michael Soi at work in his Nairobi studio
Michael Soi at work in his Nairobi studio

Michael Soi is flecked with paint when I meet him at his studio, a high, rough-walled room in a converted warehouse in Nairobi’s industrial area. Stacked against walls and tables are his large acrylic on canvas paintings in flat, bright colours: buxom women with towering Afros, leering men in uniforms and suits, corrupt coppers, fat-cat politicians, pickpockets preying on bus queues.

Next week, Soi’s work will be among eight pieces by Kenyan artists showcased in a charity sale ahead of the fifth Africa Now auction at Bonhams in London. He has donated a piece entitled China Loves Africa 6. It is typical Soi, depicting a Chinese man with a prostitute on each arm. One has a hand down his trousers as he squeezes her breast. “It’s about how China is making its presence felt in Africa,” he says. “That aspect of China and Africa I find very suspect: as long as you have something that China wants, it doesn’t care [about anything else].”

This latest series is a continuation of Soi’s desire to understand his world through his work. “I have so many question marks in my head, and China is one of them,” he says. “My career is a learning process, about finding a way to tell my story.”

That story is firmly rooted in urban life, with all its seediness and vigour. “My work revolves around Nairobi and its nightlife. I choose to work with what I know, what I experience, what I see every day,” says the 40-year-old. “Nairobi is cheeky, Nairobi is naughty and it pretends a lot.”

Soi uses humour to “sugar-coat” the serious questions he is asking about the world in which he finds himself, its hypocrisies and falsehoods. Among his early subjects were the Nairobi strip clubs-cum-brothels frequented by wealthy, respectable family men. A later series of porcine and feline-faced men in suits captured the selfishness and greed of Kenya’s elite.

What you won’t find here is the sort of pastoral scene his father, also a painter, specialises in nor, God forbid, “a beautiful African sunset”. “I can’t paint Masai villages with women milking cows; I paint garbage trucks and buses,” he says.

Soi is one of a small group of young Kenyan artists attracting attention at home and abroad. He has taken part in art workshops and residencies in Oxford, Birmingham and New York; collectors from Britain, Italy and South Korea have bought his work.

“The contemporary art scene in Kenya is inconceivable without Soi,” says Danda Jaroljmek, a director at Nairobi’s Circle Art Agency, which markets Kenyan art.

Soi is one of the few Kenyan artists making a living from his work because the local market is small and international exposure limited. But that is changing. Over the past decade or so West African and South African artists have taken their place in art collections around the world.

Fiona Fox, another Circle director who helped to establish the Tate’s African Acquisitions Committee in 2011, says that interest in East African art is growing as the local economy does. “Emerging art markets often follow financial markets, and we’ve seen that in the Gulf, India, China and now in Africa,” she says.

While Soi welcomes the international attention that the Bonhams sale is likely to bring, his focus remains at home. “A lot of my work is social commentary; work that depicts the life of Kenyans, so I want local people to collect it,” he says.