I interviewed Ngene over the telephone after watching a video (above) he sent me about his art practice, which I found to be particularly encouraging. It is clear from the video that he is dedicated to art making. In the video he says, “You can make money and be miserable, or you can make art and sacrifice some of the money.” I was curious about what sacrifices he makes, exactly, in order to live a creative life.
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Here is Ngene’s artist story:
A Love Story, 32×38, Acrylic on Wood, 2013, by Ngene Mwaura
Ngene does not survive on art sales alone. For example, when I called him he was in the middle of a job painting a fence. He is resourceful and seeks out odd jobs, like gardening or furniture restoration, particularly from his collectors. His art shows are not only about showcasing and selling art, but also about making connections to find opportunities for those odd jobs. He finds this better than working a 9-5 job because he tends to get bored quickly, so the variety helps. Odd jobs also allow him to keep a flexible schedule, so he has time to make art.
It’s not that Ngene hasn’t tried a 9-5. He used to work in the nursing field, but it was too emotionally taxing, which put a damper on his art making, so he left. He realized that he could find ways to make money by using his intelligence combined with the fact that he is good with his hands and with people. If you want to land an odd job “just ask,” he said. “Look for these people. Find people who are supportive,” he advised. He has faith in his collectors and considers them a good group of people who support him and want him to succeed, so they offer him opportunities to make money in ways other than art sales. He explained that it is a win-win for them because if they enable him to lead a lifestyle to succeed in art making, then they succeed as collectors. He poignantly explained that it is these relationships that keep him alive.
Mama, 24×48, Acrylic on Wood, 2013, by Ngene Mwaura
When Ngene left his job as a nursing assistant, he could no longer afford his house. Since he is resourceful, he found a more affordable housing option.
Not having health insurance scares Ngene. He has had some serious injuries that, for most people, would require a visit to the emergency room, but he could not afford to do that since he does not have insurance or the money to pay out-of-pocket. When health emergencies happen he “rolls with it” and “hopes he is going to be healthy.” He is no stranger to the idea that if something hampers his ability to use his hands, that his ability to make art or to support himself with odd jobs —his only sources of income– will also be hampered. Health insurance would cost him about $180 per month, which he cannot afford. He does have a goal of obtaining health insurance and is trying to find ways to boost his income by selling merchandise he makes and through other art-related side projects.
Nesting in Heaven, 48×48, Acrylic on Wood, 2013, by Ngene Mwaura
Ngene has put a lot of thought into retirement planning, although at this point he does not have money put away for retirement, which scares him. He has started saving money to, perhaps, build housing on some land he has in Kenya, where he emigrated from. He is saving for this, but since his budget is tight, the saving process is slow. His hope is that the income from this project will help provide income for retirement.
Ngene does want a family one day, but at this point he is not thinking about having children despite being in a relationship for two years. This is a big issue that has already cost him two previous relationships. He said that his father set a high standard for parenthood, particularly in terms of being able to provide financially for his family. “Cash flow is an important factor whether we like it or not,” he explained.
Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
One of his biggest problems selling art is related to his race and ethnicity. Not only do people speak to him as if he is a “naïve foreigner” who cannot understand complex ideas, but he is often told that his work is not “African enough.” He is not painting the images that many tourists want to buy because he is not painting the images expected of his ethnicity. He sometimes encounters these challenges with gallery sales, too. “This is painful to go through,” he shared. He explained that he is making the pieces because he is trying to tell a story. At the same time, however, he wants to sell his work. Instead of giving in to the ideas that he has to make more traditionally African work since it is more salable, he considers the potential buyer he is speaking with and whether or not he can use the exchange as an opportunity to educate the person. He feels that it is his duty to educate as many people as possible about his work.
The Guardian and the Vine, 24×48, Acrylic on Wood, 2013, by Ngene Mwaura
He is working toward goals that many people take for granted – to make enough money to be able to afford health insurance, a retirement fund, and a family. Art making is not simply play or a hobby. It is a serious business that he is building, and sacrificing a lot for until he makes the income that he needs to feel financially stable. Unafraid of talking about art as a business, and not only a passion, he wisely stated, “We artists need to stop demonizing money. We artists need to be paid like anyone else” because art has value, culturally and economically. “Money is like air. You don’t have to have all of it to be alive, but you have to have some of it to get things done.”
Ngene clearly juggles a lot — creating and selling art; working odd jobs to supplement his income; creating new ways to make money through merchandise and other projects in order to afford health insurance and, perhaps, parenthood; and saving money to build housing that will fund his retirement. And then there is his social life. His community includes collectors and creative people from all disciplines. While he does not have a lot of time to spend with friends because he dedicates so much of it to work, he does value the “cross pollination of ideas” with people in his creative community when he does get to see them.
Being an artist is not all “peaches and cream,” he explained. There are challenges like lack of health insurance, but his passion outweighs these risks. “You need to find a public that goes beyond supporting you with admiration and love for the work, beyond a public that won’t pay you for your work. You need to find a public that understands that you need to get paid.”
Aristocrat, 11×17, Acrylic on Wood, 2012, by Ngene Mwaura
More About Ngene
Ngene Mwaura is a third-generation artist from a family of writers and storytellers. He comes from Kikuyu, a farmland fifteen miles outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Unlike his father, Mwaura Mureithi (author of “The Adventures of Thiga”), Ngene has found illustration to be his truest form of storytelling.
The succession of his work is a timeline of his perception and experiences to date. His work takes you from the farmlands of Africa, through the art world of Europe, and most recently to Los Angeles, where he’s working on his latest work, “Masks,” an expression of what he thinks the African Mask could have evolved into if the African tradition hadn’t progressively dissipated.
He has studied under several artists, including Ndasuunye Shikongeni, Fred Mutebi, Henry Mujunga, Rafael Zarza, and Joyce Wellman. His expertise is in silk-screening, etching, acetate printing, carton printing and woodblock printing. You can find Ngene’s work in the collections of the Commercial Bank of Africa and the Dutch Embassy, in Kenya.