THERE were moments, just before dawn, that could have broken Patrick Mukabi. Those pre-dawn hours when the night is at its coldest and when, as a struggling artist, it would have been easy to quit, to give it all up, or simply paint what others said would sell to tourists. Patrick Mukabi the artist had other ideas.
As a child, Mukabi had spent hours staring at other people’s illustrations and artwork. He knew what he wanted to paint. So he toughed it out.
“At one time, I slept at a bus stop for months because I couldn’t pay rent. I would wake up at four in the morning as cold as ice, praying for sunrise. Those were the longest two hours of my life,” he said, during an interview at his studio in Nairobi.
After studying visual arts at a Nairobi college, Mukabi had found employment at a government institution reprinting logos. It was a secure, well-paid job. However, doing the same work over and over again was soul-destroying. He longed for life as a creative. Fed up, he quit his job, borrowed money from his father and started painting.
Having completed a couple of pieces, he tried selling them. He approached a prominent gallery with his artwork. He was turned down.
Tempted to compromise his artistic integrity in order to be accepted by the gallery, Mukabi instead, stood his ground and refused the offer. Approaching other art galleries, however, he discovered they were struggling to find clients. Life was going to get tough. Very tough. Making it as an artist was not going to be as easy as he’s imagined.
Mukabi’s big breakthrough came when he sold some paintings to a chain of coffee shops, Java House, which had recently launched in Nairobi and was starting to expand. The owners needed large canvases for their unique, coloured walls and theme… one that was completely new to Nairobi at the time. Mukabi’s art suited the colours and the uniquely African ambience, perfectly. His highly original work, like no other seen in the region at that time, became a signature theme for the chain and for many early patrons, remains associated with the chain to this day. He was on his way.
A determined Mukabi then broke into the international market. He held solo exhibitions in America and Europe, even selling out his pieces in a single night.
Today his work is sought after by prestigious galleries both in his homeland and abroad. A quick internet search reveals a flood of stories from both local and international media about his work.
One would expect that with that level of accomplishment and popularity, it would be easy for him to sell his art. That, however, is not the life of an artist. Sales are cyclical and there can be tough periods of sales “drought”, to this day.
“I have discovered that every three years things slow down, and I cannot make a sale and it can be like that for a whole year. Those are the hardest times for an artist,” he explained, taking a break from painting his latest canvas.
During his more than two-decade career, Mukabi has survived several dry spells that have taught him important life lessons. He now makes sure he has backup plans that provide him with an alternative source of income when the dry patches come. Though even those alternatives are employed very much on his own terms.
“I do not subscribe to government help or anything of that nature. I have seen people die after funds are depleted. So, I normally get a job. Not any kind of job, but one working in the arts. Painting or fine art is like another marriage, it consumes you.”
He also finds ways to ensure that he can turn challenges into opportunities.
“Some of my charcoal pieces came about because I had no paint. I took the charcoal to the next level until it become a piece and I discovered that charcoal can also work,” he said.
Even his work teaching children becomes an opportunity for inspiration.
“When I work with the kids, I can tell them to try something not knowing how it will turn out. Then they do it and the results are remarkable,” he said.
In an age where “fake it till you make it” is the maxim, it’s unusual for an artist to be so candid about the flip-side of their life, the side away from the camera, the lights, the fans. While dry spells are experienced by almost every successful artist, that is not the message delivered by social media, where every image is carefully curated to ensure picture-perfect results and life is usually rosy-hued.
While many less successful artists assume talking about their hard times might hurt their reputations, Mukabi is not afraid to speak openly – especially when it comes to the young people he mentors. He’s determined to see talented young creatives make fulfilling careers from art, even if that means laying the uglier side of his world bare.
“It is sad to see someone never reaching their potential. What is he going to tell his creator or his children or the people coming behind him? An artist will always have a drawing hanging in a museum, on the corner, in someone’s house or in a book. They’ll have left a mark.”