This Kenyan Artist’s Colorful Work Spotlights Nairobi’s Sex Trade

Michael Soi’s bright paintings address some of society’s darkest taboos.

Michael Soi has a sense of humor. His bright, captivating paintings, in a style that nods to the ubiquitous street cartooning seen across much of Africa and parts of Latin America, amount to visual satire. Through cheeky series like I Love Nairobi, in which he addresses the sex trade, and China Loves Africa, in which he takes China to task for its neocolonial relationship with Africa, Soi critiques both local and global aspects of society that many people would prefer to sweep under the rug. Over email, he told The FADER about his intentions and inspirations, and the difficulties of making African work for non-African audiences. Read his thoughts below, and visit his Facebook page for more images of his paintings.

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You began as a sculptor but switched to painting. What prompted that change? What makes painting the best-suited medium for your work? I guess one has to work in a medium that they feel best expresses what they want to pass across. There were a few more reasons, like I hated the blisters on my arms and all.

Your describe your work as inspired by the city of Nairobi, but it also often has a broad international context. What do you hope to communicate to Kenyans through your art? How do you universalize your work beyond Kenya? Most of my work is inspired by Nairobi. Not all of it. I have been very fortunate in my career to travel and see half the world. I am also inspired by my travels and the people I meet, the fashion and the cultural dialogues one engages in one’s travels. At the moment I am capturing moments in Nairobi and in Kenya. Any one 40 or 50 years from now can look at a book of my art and see what Nairobi was all about back then. I just document moments that I am sure most Kenyans wouldn’t want to talk about because it revolves around commercial sex work, poor governance, corruption and the life of Nairobi after dark.

Whether in pieces about the sex trade or about social media, the women in your work often appear to be more powerful than the men alongside them. What can you tell me about how you use women in your paintings? My work isn’t about women. It is about the men and the interaction that is there between the two sexes. It is about the denial that sex work doesn’t exist here and the fact that Kenya buries its head in the sand on matters pertaining to the trade. A lot of what I paint revolves around the men who patronize these clubs and the myth that all men who go to the strip clubs are perverted. What a lot of people don’t know is that the pervert is your brother, uncle, dad, kid, your expatriate friend, your banker. I also do a lot of portraits that just depict the awesomeness and beauty of the women who live in Nairobi.

The China Loves Africa series that you worked on for a few years has gotten quite a bit of attention. What was your intention? China loves Africa is a series that seeks to explore and talk about the interest that China is showing in Africa. This is work that is inspired by conversations with ordinary people down on the ground, business people who have come to love the Chinese. In a nut shell, it is a continuing conversation that is hard to ignore as an artist and social commentator.

Often, African artists are expected to fit within certain aesthetic and thematic boundaries in order for them to be considered authentically African. As someone who has traveled with their work a fair bit, can you describe your experiences navigating the power centers of the global art world? It's been not as easy. I have been a painter for 20 years now and I have mostly worked on issues relating to Africa so for an audience that isn’t African or has never been to Africa, it would end up being tricky for them to understand the work. But over time, it has become doable because although I will always work as I want, I will also make work for different audiences from my primary audiences.

June 01, 2015
This Kenyan Artist’s Colorful Work Spotlights Nairobi’s Sex Trade