“A cat has a lot in common with a politician. When it’s hungry it’ll come and rub up against you, and then the rest of the day it just sits there”. – Michael Soi
When it comes to Michael Soi’s bold paintings, don’t let the bright colors and cartoon-like characters fool you. Each one of the Nairobi-based artist’s pieces provides satirical commentary on contemporary social, economic and political trends in Kenya. Michael depicts Kenyan society in his paintings to build a complete story of what his country experiences. Like any story, his paintings express both celebration and criticism – he believes in standing up for injustice but also has a benevolent, humorous view of life.
One of Michael’s most successful (and certainly controversial) series of work, Fat Cats, almost seems like an act of activism in itself. It addresses corruption, prostitution and bribery as an impediment to positive political and economic development in Kenya. But we must remember that Michael is an artist, not a politician; he wants people to be interested in art and have an emotional connection to his paintings. He wants his creations to be a part of the political commentary that is already occurring in Kenyan civil society and media.
In this painting, Michael sends those he finds responsible for the post-election violence in 2008 to The Hague for prosecution. Photo credit: http://africanworks.blogspot.com/
Although Michael uses his art to criticize aspects of Kenyan society, he truly loves his country and the city of Nairobi. Michael is currently working on a new series of paintings titled I Love Nairobi. His work may be coming to a gallery near you – he’s been selected for many group and solo exhibitions in Africa, Europe, the UK and the US.
I asked Michael some questions about his beginnings, his inspirations and his knack for stirring up controversy.
Painting revealing Nairobi night life. Photo credit: edcrossfineart.com
Hannah Elansary: When did you start painting and creating sculptures? How did it all begin?
Michael Soi: I began creating art from my childhood because my dad is also an artist. I took it seriously after high school when I went to art school and graduated in 1996 and officially began my career as an artist.
What is the biggest inspiration for you work?
My biggest inspiration is the city of Nairobi
Why is it personally important for you to paint about corruption and other struggles?
I do work that revolves around corruption because it is a big problem in Kenya, which seems to have interfered with the development of this country. Impunity is how government deals with this issue making it very difficult- I dwell on issues that a lot of artists will choose not to address.
Who is your audience?
My audience is mostly the people of Kenya and anyone who has lived in Kenya long enough to understand the dynamics of the society.
Is there anyone’s attention in particular you are trying to grab?
Yes! The people of this country [Kenya]! I want them to look at the man in the mirror.
What is the goal of your artwork?
To create a visual diary where in the next 15 to 20 years, young people will look at my work and see where Kenyan society has come from.
Do you listen to any music while you work?
Yes! I listen to Manu Chao. I love his music and what it represents. I listen to a lot of weird music!
Why do you think people refer to your work as controversial?
Because I touch on issues that they do and don’t want put out there. I talk about corruption and commercial sex work. Kenyan society is one that loves to bury its head in the sand.
Learn more about Michael Soi and his paintings here!