In the first edition of the Kwani? journal, Kenyan activist and author Binyavanga Wainaina said:
“When art as an expression starts to appear, without prompting, all over the suburbs and villages of this country, what we are saying is: we are confident enough to create our own living, our own entertainment, our own aesthetic. Such an aesthetic will not be donated to us from the corridors of a university; or from the Ministry of Culture, or by the French Cultural Centre. It will come from the individual creations of a thousand creative people”
Kenyan Visual Artists
Our criteria for including an artist in this list was body of work, impact on culture and industry over time, innovation and novelty in expression, among other factors. The list is not exhaustive in any way. There are many other artists who qualify to be on this list so we will update the list with more names as we discover them. You can also write a comment below with the name of a Kenyan visual artist you know of who might not be on our list but should be.
Who are Visual Artists?
The list includes painters, sculptors, experimental and avant-garde contemporary artists, ceramic artists, fashion and product designers, architects, authors, advertising practitioners, photographers and filmmakers in varying stages of their careers. They are talented and creative visual artists who have contributed to Kenyan culture, usually silently and almost invisibly. Some have been practicing and honing their crafts for decades.
Here are the top Kenyan visual artists you should definitely follow and admire, if you’re not doing so already.
- Osborne Macharia
- Miriam Syowia Kyambi
- Michael Soi
- Mutua Matheka
- Tony Njuguna
- Wanuri Kahiu
- Just A Band
- Magdalene Odundo
- Edi Gathegi
- Lupita Ny’ong’o
- Wangechi Mutu
- Peterson Kamwathi
- Anyango Mpinga
We cover each of the visual artists and groups mentioned a bit more in-depth below. Click on any artist’s name to skip to the relevant section.
Kenyan artist Osborne Macharia is an important figure in the world of photography. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1986, Macharia is a self-taught Kenyan artist and photographer whose work focuses on themes of culture, identity and Afrofuturism. Osborne’s work has been featured on BBC, Vogue, Afro Punk and many other global publications.
In 2017, he was commissioned to create original artwork for the Marvel Film Black Panther, which got a lot of positive reception by fans and critics alike. Osborne is based in Vancouver, Canada. He was recently commissioned for OXIGEN water in a campaign featuring NBA’s Steph Curry.
Images: OXIGEN Water and Osborne Macharia
Osborne Macharia’s use of vibrant colors is the first thing you notice about his photography. His subjects are mostly the elderly, people with albinism and other special interest groups in society who might otherwise not make it to the exhibition galleries and Instagram feeds they frequently grace through Osborne’s work and partnership.
Images: Osborne Macharia
Osborne is one of the African artists redefining how the world sees Africa. Through the Afro-futurism movement, Osborne and many other artists are shifting the narrative away from Africa as a place of starvation, poverty and charity caravans.
Image: Osborne Macharia
2. Miriam Syowia Kyambi
Born in 1979 Kenya to German and Kenyan parents, Miriam Kyambi is a multidisciplinary visual artist and curator based in Nairobi, Kenya. Kyambi’s work cuts across photography, video, drawing, sound, sculpture and performance installation.
Syowia’s work focuses on themes of history and Kenyan identity in the political and temporal contexts they are to be found. In her biographical statement, Syowia states: “… The work is messy, complex and uneasy requiring its viewers and participants to bear witness to an embodiment of collective experiences …”
Fracture (i): A Performance Exhibition
In her performance exhibition for the project titled Fracture (i), Syowia addresses transformation in the Kenyan society. She covers themes of identity as a woman and as a human being. The exhibition challenged the Kenyan society’s narrow views on what success means. Fracture (i) challenges the materialism that stems from western capitalistic ideals.
Fracture (i) was exhibited in 2011 at the Kouvola Art Museum in Finalnd and later in 2015, other performances were held in WIELS, Belgium, 49 nord 6 est – Frac Lorraine, France and at Konsthalle Lund in Sweden. In 2016, Miriam Kyambi held another exhibition for Fracture (i) at the EVA Biennale in Ireland.
Miriam Syowia has exhibited her works in several African, European and North American countries. Her practice is heavily inspired by her deep connection with the land, the earth and the idea of home. She has had residencies at PRAKSIS, Norway (2019), CAD+SR Italy & Mexico (2018), HIAP, Finland (2018), IASPIS, Sweden (2013), and Delfina Foundation, UK (2016).
3. Michael Soi
Michael Soi is one of Kenya’s best known artists. His art offers a satirical look at contemporary life in Kenya. Born in 1972, Michael Soi’s work tackles politics, sino-Africa relations, health and lifestyle issues and many other topics. Mr Soi’s art is rich in commentary on social trends. Whether that’s corruption, police brutality or simple expressions of daily life in Kenya.
A hallmark of the Kenyan visual artist is his unique vision and highly distinctive style usually brightly-colored paintings with black outlines that are illustrative in nature and are both playful and biting. They are informed by a strong tradition of cartoonists whose works have satirized Kenyan society since independence – often bravely poking fun at the political establishment.
Michael Soi has participated in numerous workshops & residencies; exhibited widely locally and internationally; and has a huge following of collectors and enthusiasts globally. He lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya.
There was a time before artists like Mutua Matheka came along, when searching for images of Nairobi on the internet would only produce greyscale images taken by aid organizations and non-profits. The images were predominantly of low income areas. Nowadays he internet is awash with beautiful images of Nairobi’s skyline and architecture.
Mutua is a graduate architect. His photography of African cities has changed the way the world sees African cities, and hence Africa, by extension.
Images: Mutua Matheka
5. Tony Njuguna
I know! You’re surprised to find Tony Njuguna on this list of Kenyan visual artists. Well, he deserves the spot for various reasons. Best known for his role in the popular political parody show ‘Redykyulass’, Tony Njuguna is also responsible for many top brands’ creative advertising campaigns and television commercials from the early 2000s until now.
On Sunday evenings, Kenyan families would gather in front of their television sets, eager to catch the next episode of Redykyulass, a show that parodied the politicians and government leaders of the time. This might not sound like a big deal to those of us born after a certain period of time but it was a thundering statement whose existence alone inspired generations that came after to be more courageous and stand up against the evils of the day.
During Kenya’s 2nd President Daniel Moi’s reign, freedom of speech was a myth. Kenya became a multiparty state in 1992 after a lot of people had struggled to win that freedom and yet even after the constitutional victory of multi-party politics, dissent and contrarian opinions could still land you in mortal danger. Members of opposition parties like Kenneth Matiba who dared to actually oppose Moi’s government found themselves in the dungeons of Nyayo ‘Turture chambers’ House where they endured inhuman conditions.
Together with Walter Mong’are and John Kiarie, the latter who is now Member of Parliament for Dagoretti South Constituency, the trio challenged questionable government decisions no one else could question using the power of short comedy performances.
Creative Director at WPP-Scangroup
At the turn of the century in the year 2000, Tony turned his attention towards the advertising industry where he continued his creative excellence as a Creative Director at WPP-Scangroup. At WPP Tony developed award-winning marketing campaigns for top brands such as Unilever, KTB and Diageo.
Wanuri Kahiu’s captivating short film Pumzi(2009), is set 35 years after the 3rd Word War. Asha is a botanist living with the other survivors of the war. Together they live in a secluded ecosystem that keeps the people safe from the radioactive air in the abandoned barren lands that resulted from the war. The Afrofuturist sci-fi world Wanuri builds in Pumzi invites the audience to venture into a place which means the whole world for many of the people who live in it. Literally and figuratively. In the ecosystem, the ruling council of elders is composed of women; a recognition of a time in African history when this was the norm rather than the exception. Speaking to The African Report on her involvement in the Afrofuturism movement back in 2015, the Kenyan visual artist had this to say “Afrofuturism should not only give us the ability to imagine ourselves in our own future but also to use our instruments so we can better navigate the future that’s coming,”
And yet, being as important as it is, this environment is also characterized by oppression. The inhabitants’ dreams are subdued and people have to recycle their urine and sweat for consumption. Asha is an inhabitant of this futuristic place. She longs to leave and plant a seed in the plain, barren land. A relatable metaphor for the hope of what could be in a continent oft written off.
From a Whisper
Wanuri’s first film From a Whisper focused on themes of loss and how to deal with it, forgiveness and confronting the truth, which is usually not easy to do. The film was based on the 7 August 1998 bomb attack on the US Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania.
From a Whisper won Best Narrative Feature in 2010 at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, as well as five awards at the African Movie Academy Award, including Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Triggerfish Story Lab
In 2015 Wanuri was among 8 winners of the inaugural Triggerfish Story Lab for the feature film ‘The Camel Racer’ created in collaboration with Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor. The Story Lab received 1,378 entries from 30 countries across Africa and only 23 features and 14 TV series were shortlisted, highlighting how competitive the running was.
Wanuri and Nnedi Collaborations
Wanuri and Nnedi Okorafor collaborated on a slate of animation films and live action projects like The Camel Racer. The duo also worked on several short stories together, some of which were published in popular magazines like Clarkesworld.
The Wooden Camel
In 2017, Wanuri partnered with Lantana Publishing to write an African children’s book titled ‘The Wooden Camel’. It is the story of Etabo, a Turkana boy living in Northwest Kenya who dreams of becoming a camel racer. Wanuri tapped Italian illustrator Manuela Adreani to create bright and colorful illustrations.
Look Both Ways
Recently, Wanuri was tapped to direct Netflix’s top ranked film Look Both Ways. The film which is her 3rd feature film, was released on 17 August 2022 and is currently (as at 4th October 2022) the number one film on Netflix in 61 countries.
Wanuri is gracious with her powerful platform and the opportunities it presents to propel the Kenyan cultural industry forward. A scene where a main character is dancing along to Kenyan musician Blinky Bill’s ‘Bado Mapema’ hits Kenyan fans of Wanuri right in the feels. At the same time it amplified local music and introduced Blinky Bill to a whole new audience.
7. Just A Band
Just A Band is a collective composed of 4 Kenyan visual artists; Daniel Muli, Bill Sellanga, Jim Chuchu and Mbithi Masya. The four are Just A Band. They took the banalities of quotidian life and infused them with rhythm and verve.
Coming up in the early 2000s, when artistic practice was seen as inferior to other professional endeavors (still is), Just A Band were a breath of fresh air. As the consumer internet industry gained steam, an influx of youth joined social media sites such as Twitter. These platforms became a potent breeding ground for unconventional ways of thinking. A place where writers, bloggers and artists could thrive.
Misconceptions about Africa
At the same time, the world still looked at Africa as the ‘Dark’ continent. The internet was awash with misconceptions about Africa.
When Just A Band came into the spotlight, they wanted to do things differently. To cause a stir. The band was experimental with their visuals and their infusion of creativity was topnotch. Their employment of digital technology to create their work gave rise to a whole new musical experience. In 2010, they released the revolutionary ‘Ha-He’ video which became Kenya’s first viral video. Ha-he was the second single of their album ’82’. The video marked the return of Makmende, the badass central character, whose name was inspired by Kenyan street vernacular from the 1990s.
Visual Art Exhibitions
In 2008, the Goethe-Institut Kenya commissioned Just A Band to create a visual art exhibition, marking their expansion from just a band. The exhibition was titled TRNSMSSN. “Broken synthesizers and fragmented satellite broadcast from the future provide a fictionalized Kenyan future; panicked astronauts, lovelorn puppets, a flying tortoise, the meaning of life, an experimental boy band and a sprinkling of sparkly stuff …”
Just a Band’s creative curiosity has seen the collective put out a lot of work in a short time. They had taken a break but they’re back. Back to imagining alternate realities. And to shattering stereotypes of what it means to be an African artist on a global stage. Their sights are set on the future, in uncharted territory, courting the depths of discovery.
Njugush is a Kenyan visual artist and comedian who has been performing since the early 2010s. Real name Timothy Kimani Ndegwa, Njugush appeared in the art scene in 2013 when he hosted Hapa Kule News, a satirical show that covered current news issues in slang. Njugush later joined the cast of ‘Real Househelps of Kawangware’ , a 30 minute comedy show revolving around the lives of househelps in Nairobi’s Kawangware town. Njugush’ method acting won him a lot of fans and pushed him to national fame.
Njugush has since ventured out on his own, with a massive following on social media platforms and on YouTube. He produces skits that cover issues affecting society like poor governance, inefficiencies of bureaucracy, morality and many other societal issues.
Together with Ms Wakavinye, who also happens to be his wife, they satirize societal issues in short (usually under 20 minutes) and humorous skits. Occasionally, they feature their 3 year old son Tugi in their comedy skits.
9. Magdalene Odundo
Kenyan-born Ceramicist Magdalene Odundo is unarguably one of few Kenyan visual artists whose work has had a lot of impact on the bearing of the world’s cultural industry.
Her breadth and depth is unparalleled in the world of ceramic art. So much so that in 2008, Magdalene was awarded the Order of the British Empire for Services to the Arts.
A lot of Magdalene’s work feels anthropomorphic. The vases are expressive, the pitchers are curvaceous, the urns are unique in the comical curving and bulging necks. The ceramics come to life and exude pride at being molded by their creator.
Magdalene Odundo DBE is an alumna of the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) where her interest in ceramic art was really piqued. When she joined the Cambridge School of Art, Magdalene hoped to start a foundation course before going on to pursue a degree course in commercial art. After some time, she realized her enjoyment was more in the practical and hands-on parts of the classes than the two-dimensional. So she focused on ceramics. Speaking with Cambridge News, Professor Magdalene had this to say with respect to her artistic journey: “[At Cambridge] I ended up loving working with clay. I was able to think with clay and to play and to be much more expressive, much more individual than working with advertising and commercial art.”
While at Cambridge in the 1970s, Magdalene found inspiration from the museums, galleries and many other art spaces such as the Fitzwilliam Museum (where her work would be exhibited 5 years later) and The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Professor Magdalene’s work is held in various public collections including in the Metropolitan Museum and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
10. Edi Gathegi
Edi Gathegi is a prolific Kenyan actor whose impact in Hollywood cannot be undersold. Whether he’s playing the role of a mobster with a mission (StartUp), a vampire looking for a vein to stick his teeth in (Twilight Saga) or a virtually indestructible hero (X-Men) , Edi Gathegi is undoubtedly one of Kenya’s top visual artists.
Born in Nairobi and raised in California, Gathegi thought he’d be a basketball star until an knee injury ended his dreams of being a star ball player. That’s when he began taking acting classes and later studying at the Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating, he began acting in theatre with stage credits in Two Trains Running, As You Like It, Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among others. In 2006, he got his first break in the film Crank as a Haitian cabbie.
Gathegi has starred in many roles since then. He has appeared on Lincoln Heights, Veronica Mars, Gone Baby Gone, medical drama House, CSI: Miami. Twilight Saga, Justified among many others. With so many diverse roles played so well, it is clear Edi Gathegi is an actor of wide range. He can be a vampire, a goofy assistant or an animated cabbie, depending on what’s asked of him.
11. Lupita Ny’ong’o
When Lupita played Patsey in the 2014 Oscar winner for best film 12 Years a Slave (script by John Ridley, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen), it was the first time many lovers of film in the world were discovering and bearing witness to her talent and skill. In Kenya, however, Lupita had been a staple name in local and international productions.
MTV Shuga Season 1
In the first season of the 2009 MTV-produced Shuga, Lupita starred as Ayira, a beautiful, confident and vivacious college student. Shuga is a show about destigmatizing HIV/AIDS which was seen as a death sentence at the time of its release. The show played a huge role in educating and informing viewers, helping create richer conversations in public discourse around living with HIV/AIDS.
Painting Africa in a Different Light
Lupita is an avid advocate of Kenya and a passionate lover of the African renaissance currently underway. It was Lupita who caused an uproar after a certain European magazine altered her hair on the cover of one of its editions to fit a more Eurocentric appeal of what beautiful hair looks like. In a world where opinions around the appropriateness of certain hair types usually leans heavily against African women’s natural hair, it is individual acts of boldness like this one which change the trajectory of societies.
Your Dreams Are Valid
In her acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actress award at the 2014 Oscars, Lupita moved the world to tears with the message to children everywhere; “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” She has since played various other roles in several films, most recently including her dual performance as the absolutely scary ‘Red’ in Jordan Peele’s 2022 film Us. Her outstanding portrayal of the character was received with acclaim from both critics and audiences.
12. Wangechi Mutu
Born in Kenya and living in Brooklyn, Wangechi’s work finds inspiration in various influences. From surrealism, to collage techniques. Her mediums of artistic outlet are as varied as her thematic coverage; at home with paper, clay or bronze.
Wangechi Mutu is a master of storytelling. Her art is a journey of discovery and visual intrigue. A trained sculptor and anthropologist, Wangechi’s work seems to exist out of time. It could be placed in the past and fit like a glove to a hand. It could also be beamed to the future and still find meaning. To produce timeless art like that is a gift bestowed on few. The Kenyan visual artist’s work centers around themes such as female and cultural identity, colonial history, her African heritage, and fashion. Wangechi Mutu’s work focuses on several themes at a time. The visual artist initiates transformative dialogue and encourages her audience to engage in self-reflection.
Just as visually complex as her pieces, are the messages she communicates. And rightfully so because isn’t life a complex mishmash of experiences at the end of the day? The last point is conjecture on the part of the writer of this article, but still, it does make one think more critically.
In her long and successful career, Wangechi has held exhibitions around the world at Studio Museum of Harlem in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, been commissioned to create artistic pieces in various forms. Wangechi’s 7ft collages feature snippets of photos from African art books, fashion and travel magazines, pornography, automotive diagrams and hand-drawn elements. Her video creations are equally complex with layered themes and several messages.
13. Peterson Kamwathi
Peterson Kamwathi is one of the most popular Kenyan visual artists. Born in 1980, he has had several residencies in the USA, Netherlands, Senegal, UK and South Africa. Kamwathi has exhibited at solo shows and in group exhibitions across the world. Kamwathi’s work is held in private and public collections around the world including a woodcut print purchased by the British Museum.
He was among the few Kenyan artists whose work was selected for East Africa’s first modern contemporary art auction held by the Circle Art Agency in 2013.
In 2017, Peterson Kamwathi’s work was among that of 4 Kenyan artists on display at the Venice Biennale. The Kenyan display was curated by Jimmy Ogonga. Pavilion organizers put on a show despite receiving no government support. Other artists from Kenya were Arlene Wandera, Mwangi Hutter and Paul Onditi.
3. Anyango Mpinga
This year, the Kenyan visual artist and fashion designer Anyango Mpinga was chosen among 100 applicants from 25 countries to be featured on billboards around New York City as part of the New York Fashion Week.
Born to a Kenyan mother and a Tanzanian father, Anyango spent most of her childhood in Nairobi. The Kenyan visual artist later pursued a conventional path through higher education, gaining a degree in Media Studies. Mpinga worked as an events and PR manager in Ethiopia then a radio presenter in Nairobi before venturing out on her own to start her eponymous fashion label in 2015. She also founded the non-profit organization Free As a Human to raise awareness on human trafficking, economic injustices in the fashion supply chain and worker exploitation in the consumer sector.
The self-taught fashion designer is now a name to reckon with in the global fashion world. Her 2016 collection The Proverbial Dreamer used prints inspired by the scarification patterns used by various tribes in Africa for beautification purposes. Anyango draws from her cultural heritage and uses it as a gateway into the creation of new ideas for future collections.
Through her work, Anyango Mpinga’s goal to inspire positive body image for all women. “My clothes are designed to create a flowing silhouette,” she says in an interview with Tanzania’s Precision Air Inflight Magazine. “You can wear them even if you put on a few pounds – they are flattering for smaller and bigger figures.”
Her label’s Phonology Collection, which was released in 2018, drew from the study of systematic organization of sounds and how they are used in languages. The collection featured what Anyango Mpinga calls the “Sound of Love” print, created from soundwaves of the words ‘I Love You’ in 25 languages; 10 Kenyan and 15 from other places around the world.
At the 2018 Lagos Fashion Week, Anyango Mpinga was among the most venerated. Her label has been showcased in Tokyo, Paris, New York, London, Milan, Bangkok, Porto and in several other cities.