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Onyis’s retrospective reflects multiple lessons learned


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Onyis’s retrospective reflects multiple lessons learned



Onyis Martin didn’t tell anyone he was putting up a retrospective exhibition of his art in the main hall at Kobo Trust.

“I see a few people coming by, and that is fine, but I basically put it up for myself,” the artist tells BDLife as we sat together last week.

“I wanted to see where I had been and where it felt like I would go next,” he continues, noting he had only put up his collage ‘wall’ works, 17 in all. They spanned from 2016 when he won the Manjano competition up to the end of 2022.

Recalling that 2016 was a busy time for him, he said it was also something of a turning point since Manjano wasn’t the only award he’d received that year.

There was also the Absa ‘Atelier’ prize which took him to Johannesburg for a three-month artist’s residency at the acclaimed Bag Factory.

He was the only Kenyan there that year and he says he took full advantage of all the opportunities made available to him.

He went to galleries and museums, attended artists’ talks, and visited their studios. He also discovered so many art books and magazines.

So basically, it opened up his mind to the limitless possibilities in the arts for artists.

Previously, Onyis had never been formally trained in the arts, although he nearly went to study at Kenyatta University.

“But at the last minute, I changed my mind. And I have never regretted that decision,” he adds.

In any case, Onyis had been drawing since childhood. “I’d take my big sister’s textbooks and copy the illustrations inside,” he recalls.

But he also had an excellent mentor in the art teacher who was in charge of his school’s drama club at St Thomas Aquinas.

Onyis has been experimenting with various techniques, materials, and ideas all his life. But the art form that earned him recognition both at Manjano and at the Absa Ateliers was the collage.

His collages are meant to reflect aspects of everyday social life, so he would go and collect posters from off public walls that had been papered over with the same posters that he’d use in his collages.


He would even take some of the constraining commands from off the public walls as if to mock their meaning.

That is why one will see phrases like ‘No Posters’, ‘Beware of Conmen’, and ‘Do not stand in front of the gate’ in paintings he sometimes calls ‘Talking Walls’.

Onyis says that his time in South Africa awakened a political awareness in him that he previously hadn’t had.

“It was after I’d been to Jo’burg that I started including images of Dedan Kimathi and Steve Biko in my paintings,” he said, noting that those paintings are technically still evolving.

But the other thing he gained from travelling and spending time down south was his learning the importance of speaking about his art and learning how to do it.

But soon after those three months were up, he got a call to come to Australia to celebrate at their Sanaa Festival and also exhibit his art.

So Onyis went and has been back to Sydney several times since.

Onyis has also been featured in several Art Fairs, especially during COVID. “Otherwise, very little was happening with us during those COVID times,” he says.

He has also taken part in several group exhibitions, one in Wales, another in Barcelona, and several rights here in Nairobi, at Circle Art Gallery, the Chilean ambassador’s residence, and at Kobo itself, curated by Gravitart.

But one feature of Onyis’s exhibitions that he has included since 2016 but isn’t included in his retrospective, is the doors.

These are doors Onyis has used to symbolize both the opening up of new possibilities as well as the shutting down of options and represent limitations and misfortunes.

Onyis’s doors and window frames are a whole other set of recycled items or ‘found objects that have evolved significantly since 2016.

“I’m in contact with companies that get paid to demolish old homes, so I keep track of when they are getting set to demolish a place. I get to the site before the doors get taken away by guys who plan to turn them into firewood,” he says.

His doors get a good wash and polish, and then they become ‘frames’ for his drawing of enigmatic men who have stories to tell, stories we’ll eventually hear from the artist himself.

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