Wallace Juma knew early on he wanted to be an artist, but recoiled from employment, now, with his own studio, he mentors and inspires others
Harriet James @Harriet86jim
In March this year, Wallace Juma, a contemporary visual artist, won first prize at the Manjano Art Competition and Exhibition for his ‘Many faces and souls’ painting.
Cut from glossy magazines, the large collage comprised of rows and columns of faces, was then coated in sooty smoke and finally etched to give an effect that was both haunting and rather ghoulish.
Despite the fact that Wallace was not confident that he would win, the judges loved it and voted in his favour. “I don’t consider it a gift, I think art is just a way of life, so many people make art without knowing. It’s part of human nature,” he begins.
Raised in Dandora and Budalangi, 30-year-old Wallace, the second born in a family of seven children, discovered his passion for art at an early age. His mother used to make embroidery, drawing his interest.
Just like every home, they experienced struggles, having studied his primary schooling both in Nairobi and Budalangi and later going to secondary school in Nairobi at Our Lady of Fatima in 2006.
“My school years were the time I learnt some of the best lessons in my life. It was a moment of trying to understand my existence and my identity. I kept exploring so many other things in addition to struggling with teenage issues,” explains Wallace.
However, this was the period where art was removed from the school syllabus. In the year 2001, Art and Craft and Home Science, which were two examinable subjects, were scrapped from the Kenya primary school curriculum.
“It was a secret life for me back then. I had issues with my self-esteem and art assisted me to build my confidence. Making art gave my life balance, took me to another realm I understood better. It made me feel good when I realised I had made something beautiful,” says Wallace.
At home, when no one was watching, Wallace drew all that he could see or feel. As he confesses, he didn’t just paint, liberally making art from everything in sight, but admits to having enjoyed working with faces more and could make sculptures from clay soil and plasticine, and disassemble and reassemble things. “I could make kites and flying objects, cars from wires and boxes. There was always room for experiments.
A learning experience
Wallace struggled a bit in his search for a college to go to soon after high school. He desired to study an art related subject and was lucky to receive partial sponsorship from a local NGO to study graphics design at Buruburu Institute of Fine Art in 2010.
Here, he met a friend who introduced him to the art market and contemporary art in general.
“My college years were learning moments, everything was new, it was nothing like what I learned in high school.
I started visiting art exhibitions and made visits to the art gallery to understand the art market and research more,” he says.
Sadly, Wallace confesses that none of the skills he acquired in college could be used afterwards. In his view, much of what he learned could only be used to secure employment and even after finding a job, he discovered that he just wasn’t cut out to be in one.
“I wanted to skip that employment phase. I quit my first job the same day, at lunchtime. I got another job, and again I tried, making it from Monday to Thursday, then I quit. At this point, I wanted to become a full-time visual artist, not a “robot” sitting in front of a computer from morning to evening,” says Wallace.
He built enough confidence to make a living without formal employment, and began finding ways of selling his artwork. He delved deeper into how people relate to art and business skills in general. In addition, he learnt how to price his work, something that he admits was rather confusing.
“Some found it expensive others found it cheap. I realized that the foreign community invested more in local artists. There’s so much awareness that Kenyans require,” he confesses.
“With art, you sell fast if your name and your work are well known. Everything has been going well, but each year gets better,” says Wallace.
His work bore fruit when he won the best artist award in the country at Manjano 2018. Manjano is an annual artist competition organised by the Godown Arts Centre. The competition is all about artwork inspired by Nairobi city, be it landscape, city, nature or people. He was competing against some 200 artists based in Nairobi and its environs.
“The pieces that won were my third time participating and I got a deep feeling of accomplishment. It’s fulfilling, especially to win the 1st prize. It challenges you to push the envelope. Now I’m after a regional or continental award, I would say,” says Wallace.
The award came with cash and with this Wallace was able to invest in his practice. Above all, it’s a famous award, so it put his name out there, making him feel more established than before. He also won his 1st solo show in the month of June this year for his first solo dubbed Reflections.
His work has been exhibited in more countries than he has been to, like in East Africa, West Africa, USA, Australia, and Germany. His greatest dream is to visit major art capitals like Cape Town, Dakar, London, Paris, Venice, and New York.
In June 2017, together with his friend Leevans Linyerera, he founded the Kijani Artist Collective and started a studio, which, together with a few artists, is slowly transforming into an artist collective.