BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
Two years ago Florence Wangui was an unknown. The recent Kenyatta University graduate was on her way to becoming a biochemist or a vet as far as family and friends were concerned since those were the fields she studied at uni.
“I love science,” said Wangui speaking at One Off Gallery where her one woman exhibition of charcoal drawings is up for the month.
“But I love art more,” continued the first born of her parents’ four, who took a leap of faith two years back and chose to pursue her passion and penchant for art over her talent as a physical scientist.
No one could have anticipated Wangui’s meteoric rise from obscurity in November 2011 to stellar status in Nairobi’s fast moving art world today. That’s largely because she says she never exposed her desire to draw, except at Buru Buru Girls Secondary where she’d help out her science teacher by drawing everything from human eyes to animals on the blackboard prior to his teaching a particular topic.
“Otherwise, i didn’t show anyone my sketch book until [late 2011 when] I met Patrick Mukabi and told him I wanted to become a great artist and I’d appreciate his help,” she confessed.
It’s hard to believe she could have kept her heart’s desire a secret all those years, since she first started drawing when her family still lived in Eastleigh and she’d draw everything from cartoon characters to action heroes like Bruce Lee and Sly “Rambo” Stallone. But apparently, nobody was paying attention.
Perhaps that is one reason her current exhibition is full of chicken. “I think they are beautiful, but they are often ignored. I wanted to show people that even creatures they see as ordinary are really very special,” said Wangui who’s had cocks and hens in her life since she was a child, and thus she’s seen how intelligent they actually are
Even when she was living in Dandora and Kayole, her mother kept a few hens around, which Wangui would observe and draw. “My mother was very strict and made us stay indoors while she went to work, so that’s when I had time to draw.“
Ironically, when she shared her sketch book with Mukabi (who she’d first seen on Citizen TV teaching art on the Know Zone), she had no animals, only people, in her book. But once she started studying with him at the GoDown in early 2012, he wanted her to select her own subjects to work on.
“And so I thought, why look outside myself when I’m meant to draw things that I know well. The hens immediately came to mind,” she said.
It’s that familiarity with her subject matter that makes her charcoal drawing so stunning. Each creature/bird seems to have a personality of her or his own, and it’s the vitality and individuality of each creature that can partially explain how she’s an artist who seemly came out of nowhere in late 2012 when she took part in her first group exhibition at the GoDown and by 2013 she was winning cash prizes, invitations to exhibit in public spaces like Le Rustique and the Nairobi National Museum and now she was recently invited to be exclusively represented by OneOff Gallery.  


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