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Artist Uses Racy Subjects to Show 'Real' Kenya

  • Jill Craig

As the art scene in Kenya has grown, Michael Soi's works have become searing depictions of society, including the underworld of strip clubs, prostitution, and police corruption, as well as everyday contradictions in politics and personal lives.

The Nairobi artist said he aims to show life as it really is.

“It’s just because I choose to work on issues that a lot of Kenyan artists choose not to work with. I use, I basically create, work that would be seen as work that disturbs people,” he explained.

For example, Soi did a series of paintings on Nairobi strip clubs, in which he focused more on the men’s reactions than on the women themselves.

Soi admitted that he likes exposing hypocrisy in society.

“It’s a community that basically loves to dig a hole and bury your head in the sand and pretend that these things don’t happen. But unfortunately, they do,” the artist noted.

According to Danda Jaroljmek, the founder of the Circle Art Agency, Soi has never been afraid to push conventional limits.

“I think up until recently, artists were very uncomfortable about being overtly political. People were frightened to do that, and I’ve noticed over the last five, seven years that it has become open," she said.

"But he’s still one of the forerunners because his work is very humorous, and he deliberately makes it understandable because he wants his audience to be local Kenyans who can relate to his work and understand it, as opposed to art being a sort of elitist thing where only the upper classes can appreciate,” Jaroljmek added.

She said Soi’s artwork usually amuses passersby. In fact, she recently brought his painting of voting lines during the March elections to a show in Nairobi.

“And every single person who walked past that piece laughed their heads off, you know, from the cleaner to the general manager," she recalled. "So I think people treat it with humor. I think it’s just a humorous thing. But it is a subject people are a bit uncomfortable talking about.”

Issues that make Kenyans squirm are precisely the ones that Soi wants to document for future generations through his artwork.

“I am basically trying to create what I want to call a social pictorial diary," he explained. "You know, I am just documenting this city, I am just documenting this country at this particular moment.”

And Soi has no plans to stop documenting these moments anytime soon.

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