Ngene Mwaura was 12 yrs old when he started painting in earnest. It all began on the day his dad sketched every member of the family, unknowingly challenging Ngene’s position as the artist of the family. Ngene started working hard to take back his spot.
One of his fondest childhood memories was creating a monopoly set with some of his schoolmates. “There was no money in it, there was no future in it”—they were just replicating a board game. Not everyone could afford a monopoly set, so Ngene and his friends spent precious hours painstakingly recreating a set: redesigning it and working to get the borders just right. That project helped him improve his artistic skills.
Ngene’s current signature style of art is influenced by a number of artists, whose work he began to study as a junior in high school: John Muafangejo (Namibian), Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch), Henry Moore (English), Amadeo Modigliani (Italian), Ndasuunye Shikongeni (Namibian) and Kivutha Mbuno (Kenyan). His high school art teacher exposed him to these artists and gave him unlimited access to the Art Room and all the materials in it. “I fell in love with the big scoops of Henry Moore’s sculptures. I liked woodblock printing and silk screen printing.”
After high school Ngene had the good fortune of attending a woodblock printing workshop by Ndasuunye Shikongeni, who had been Muafangejo’s protégé. This was the next best thing to working with Muafangejo, who had died before Ngene graduated from high school. Thereafter, he studied woodblock printing with Kuona Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, with a number of his pieces being shown in some establishments around the city, including the Kenya Commercial Bank and the Dutch Embassy. His artwork was also entered in a show in Perth, Australia.
While at Kuona Trust Ngene admired the works of, and had the opportunity to work with, Patrick Mukabi and Wanjohi Nyamu–two artists with very different styles and mediums . One is a painter and the other a sculptor, from whom Ngene learned a passion for his work. “They are both emotional artists, like I am. Ever heard of [Charles] Bukowski’s quote, ‘Find what you love and let it kill you?’ I love that. They are passionate to the point where they lose themselves when they are painting.” Ngene tries to push himself to that point, where nothing else exists, but the piece in front of him. “If I give it what it wants, it will reward me in the end.”
During his time at Kuona Trust Ngene learned to enjoy night life as part and parcel of the life of an artist. Away from the studios and shows, the artists would kick back and exchange all kinds of ideas with each other. Over drinks at a bar, even the most famous of artists were accessible. Ngene has learned a lot and made key connections during those times.
In 2003 Ngene moved to Altadena, California where he joined an art gallery in his neighborhood. Through it he met many people that opened doors for him in other places. “I did two shows in 2006-07 for Black History month at Toyota Headquarters in Culver City, and in 2011 a show as part of Most recently, he participated in a show at the Watt’s Art Tower in the summer of 2012..”
Ngene decided to try live-painting after seeing another artist, Jason Castner, live-paint in Los Angeles. Jason was happy to share tips with him and the two became friends. When Ngene started out, his live-paintings were about doing something for the audience. Over time, it was no longer about the audience but about the art itself. He gradually went back to making the art that he likes.
Live-painting gives him a unique opportunity to move the audience from passivity to engagement in conversation about his work. When I interviewed him, he was painting over a piece of art that he’d initially made when his mom died. He prefers painting positive subjects, rather than painful ones. “If I’m gonna talk about something that’s sad or about something that is negative… I have to find a positive way to do it.”
The most beautiful thing about art for Ngene is the process of translating an image from his mind onto canvas. The image on canvas is never as perfect as what he sees in his mind, but he loves the challenge of engaging his emotions, eyes, hands and mind to produce a piece. “That span between conception and birth, for me, is heaven.”
Painting has now become a spiritual experience for him. “I live-paint, where it’s fast and energetic, and then I go back home and it’s very meticulous and detailed and very, very fine lines. At that point it’s meditation.”
He considers himself somewhat of a method artist because he uses music to evoke certain emotions in order to create a certain kind of painting. “When I go back home and I’m relaxed and I can control my environment, I put a selection of songs in a loop. Those songs keep me in a certain mood and I make that painting get there.”
The last brush stroke is the most fulfilling part of a painting for Ngene. It marks the end of the journey and reminds him of everything that went into getting him there: the emotions he felt, the childlike innocence he had while working on the piece. This is meditation.
Ngene’s entire family was instrumental in supporting his creative dreams. “My dad understands what dreaming is. For him there is never a bad idea, so long as there is an idea.” Instead of rubbishing his childish ideas, his dad always challenged him to pursue and develop them. His dad listened when other people would have become impatient with him.
His sister also supported him greatly by letting him stay with her rent-free while he was beginning his career as an artist in Nairobi. Wanjohi Nyamu was instrumental in getting him an internship at Kuona Trust and giving him honest critiques of his work, while Patrick Mukabi helped him greatly develop his craft. Both artists helped him financially.
Besides painting, Ngene is creative in a lot of other ways. He acted in the Judy Kibinge movie Aftermath and loved it. He’s extremely interested in music development and has had opportunities to try his hand at it in friends’ studios. In addition to painting he has done fabric design, woodblock printing, silk screen printing and sculptures.
Ngene’s advice to young artists? “Listen to what people tell you, but do what you want to do. Because at the end of the day your paintings are the bed you make and you’ll have to lie in it. Make something that you like. If you release something that’s substandard, it’s your name that is out there. Criticism comes easy; ideas come easy, but implementation is the hardest thing in the world. If you can answer the question: why do I do art? Go ahead and do it.”