We sat down with Kenyan artist Waraguru Waithira and talked representation, African literature, art, and the importance of sharing your narrative.
Being an artist of color is hard, especially when the people that are observing your paintings do not understand the message you’re trying to convey. Then to make matters worse, being an artist of African descent who was born and raised in Kenya is hard because of the cultural differences. Cultural differences can lead to miscommunications like professors and classmates asking questions such as “why do you only paint mask?” or “why do you only paint Black People?” or “why do you only paint violent stories?”
But you see, Waraguru Waithira is strong and won’t let anyone deter her from telling the real stories of Kenyan History; instead, her response is simple she explains, “We haven’t seen proper representation for a really long time of African art or literature.”
“Once I came to college, I started to find myself! I began to do more research on Kenyan history as well!” the Kenyan born artist explains. “I recently spoke to my great grandmother about unbiased Kenyan history; which has ultimately inspired my recent painting style. I use my paintings as a way to tell stories about unbiased Kenyan history.” Waraguru furthermore explains.
The Occidental College junior who is doubling majoring in Biology, as well as studio arts, explains vividly how she got to her junior year of college as a studio arts major who is confident in her work.
“I moved from Kenya seven years ago to New York City because my parents wanted better opportunities and for me to continue a higher education,” she begins to reminisce. “Although I always drew when I was little– I started painting seven years ago as well. Growing up in Kenya paint was really expensive; so when I moved to the states I saw the utilities were cheaper, so I started to watch YouTube Videos and I initially starting painting from watching Bob Ross’ videos.”
“I started painting landscapes until I found my own style of art.” Waraguru explains, “my style of art is traditional and Kikuyu (her native Kenyan tribe).”
“I use a lot of colors and masks. Since I chose to paint about the history of Kenya, I can’t put a face to those people so I use masks as an abstract form.” She explains to me. “Then the reason why I use vibrant colors like orange, bright green, yellow, and red because people from my tribe are colorful and wear a lot of jewelry.”
“I just want to tell stories from an indigenous African point-of-view” She proudly exclaims.
Growing up in New York City was a culture shock for her. She went a school with kids who were 1st generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. She noticed a lot of them were brainwashed when it came to skin color and race. These reoccurring experiences acted as a catalyst for the young artist and inspired her to be different. “I wanted to empower people of African descent. I saw a lot of African kids being marginalized and being called names like dark skin and ugly — it was heartbreaking!” She tells me. So from that point on, she used her art as a form of escape but also to motive/inspire other people of color.
“I essentially want to motive/inspire people like Wangechi Mutu inspired me.” Just like Waithira, Mutu is a born and raised Kenyan artist. “She helped me tap into my culture and accept myself as a Kenyan born artist.” Just like Mutu, Waithira wants to provoke thoughts and start conversations from her art.
“Due to our generation where people do not like doing research or reading —that’s where my art comes in. When you’re drawn to the artwork you want to learn more about it —so from there, your art begins to tell a story.” She explains the story her artwork displays. “My art tells stories about African history and honestly African history has been tampered with so much and we just accept it, and that’s where I come in at!” She finishes off the conversation.
Her art is the voice for anyone who wants to tell a story that hasn’t been told. It doesn’t just stop with her art, the Kenyan born artist who has so much to tell the world plans on informing the world about Kenya and the Kikuyu Tribe. ” I plan to make a documentary on the veterans of Kenya– the woman that fought against the British. The untold stories about the MAUMAU in Kenya. That’s the plan aside from showing my art around the world.”