Shabu Mwangi

Art & life in a Nairobi slum

“Live is tough. I left my family and started living with other boys when I was 12 years old. I didn’t fear anything but death… I was surrounded by death. It hit my people. I made friends with fellow artists and I saw them die, mainly because of (life in) the crime scene…

Shabu Mwangi at Lungalunga slum dumping site Nairobi
Shabu Mwangi at Lungalunga slum dumping site Nairobi

Scary events

Shabu’s paintings are about human emotions he encounters amongst his fellow slum-dwellers. He shows events that nobody else pays any attention to; illegal abortions, under-age prostitution, people dying as a result of fires caused by illegal electricity and oil leaks from nearby factories. He is fascinated by human behaviour. As he explains: “In this postmodern life people live together but are isolated bubbles and want to show others that they are cool and happy… But people forget that they can only understand happiness if they know what sadness means.” The sadness that Shabu has experienced first-hand during his harsh life in the slums of Nairobi informs much of his art. His paintings are narratives. The dark colours and abstract figures have an alienating effect. “People feel pain when they see my work. It’s about humans and events that happen in the slum. The faces are not scary, but what takes place is scary and I can only embody that through facial expressions.”

Shabu Mwangi 'Judiciary'
Shabu Mwangi ‘Judiciary’
Shabu Mwangi
Shabu Mwangi
Shabu Mwangi at work
Shabu Mwangi at work

Burnt Mabati

He works with acrylic paint on canvas or other surfaces. He also uses corrugated iron or mabati as it is called in Swahili. The slum is built out of mabati and it provides inhabitants with shelter and privacy. “After a huge fire in the slum everything was gone except for the burnt mabati. There were dead bodies everywhere. When it was over I decided to work on mabati to help it regain its value as shelter.” According to Shabu it’s important to document history. “I observe what is changing and things are moving fast. I want to keep track of what is happening and by reflecting on it I question it.”

Shabu Mwangi - on Mabati
Shabu Mwangi – on Mabati

Growing up next to a rubbish dump

Shabu Mwangi was born in Lungalunga slum in Nairobi where he grew up with his mother and eleven other children in very difficult circumstances. As a result he had a lot of responsibility as a young boy. “I was a father and a kid. I started fatherhood from a very early age on. I tried to support my family by collecting plastic and metal from the rubbish dump. At a certain moment I was kicked out of school because I was influencing other kids with my anti-social behaviour. I was a quiet kid, but a lion inside. I figured I loved myself more than education and I thought the best way was to experience real life outside school. It was a hard time.”

Shabu and friends on the dumping side, Lungalunga slum Nairobi
Shabu and friends on the dumping side, Lungalunga slum Nairobi
Dumping Site Lungalunga slum, Nairobi
Dumping Site Lungalunga slum, Nairobi

Gangsters as role models

Shabu‘s generation didn’t have a positive vision for the future: “Our role models were gangsters and it was all about crime. I couldn’t even date a girl from outside Lungalunga slum, because it had such a bad reputation. Luckily my mom always told me I was very special so she gave me a good sense of self-esteem. After I lost all my fellow artists in the crime scene I decided to change my behaviour and now I want to upgrade my slum by motivating the younger generation and give them something I never had: a positive role model.”  With his art and art projects in Lungalunga slum Shabu is practicing what he preaches.

Lungalunga Slum Nairobi
Lungalunga Slum Nairobi

Upgrading the slum

Shabu set up ‘Wajukuu Art Centre’ together with his now deceased artist friends. Wajukuu is a Swahili word meaning: grandchildren. It’s related to the Swahili concept ‘consequences to the grandchildren’. Shabu: “If you do something wrong, it will affect you now and your kids later. It’s why we are in the slums while others are in wealthier places. Our grandparents they might have been lazy or they did something wrong and that’s why we are here. We are facing the consequences of their behaviour and choices.”  The Wajukuu group of artists want to change lives in the slum. Shabu: “Instead of gangsters as role models, artists are now role models. Kids might not listen to me, but they are very good at imitating.”

‘Wajukuu Art Centre’ Nairobi
‘Wajukuu Art Centre’ Nairobi

Wajukuu wants to provide a safe place for kids where they can sit down in the library and do their homework but also express themselves through art. ‘Kids Club’ is Shabu’s favourite activity at his art centre: “It’s a friendly environment where kids can be kids. At first the parents thought it was witchcraft because art was unknown to them. We didn’t paint friendly zebras. But we informed and involved parents in our art projects. Now they see us as people with a good moral influence.” That is what art is all about according to Shabu, passing on moral values that make people more aware.

Shabu Mwangi's Kids Club at Wajukuu Art Centre
Shabu Mwangi’s Kids Club at Wajukuu Art Centre

Art as sacrifice

For Shabu, art and being an artist is almost like a religion that provides people with a moral framework. He explains: “It provides freedom and a higher self-esteem, people start longing for something when they connect with art. That’s what I love about being an artist; it gives me the ability to make others feel free. If you want to do something, the universe will support you: just go for it!”

Whereas to Shabu art means complete freedom of expression of his inner self he finds it difficult to sell his paintings and be commercial. “It’s a tough part of being an artist because you express yourself without any expectations. It’s a sacrifice which has nothing to do with commercialism. But I have to sell my work in order to live but I wish I could keep it all with me. It’s just like being a parent, they can’t own their children but they are happy when they are around.”

Shabu Mwangi 'Yellow Line'
Shabu Mwangi ‘Yellow Line’

Shabu’s passion is to keep interacting with the slum community, especially the children, to show them that anything is possible and their future is in their own hands.

Shabu Mwangi at work
Shabu Mwangi at work

English subtitles available, click on the cc-button in the video.