Street Art, Video and Social Change: Kenya Street Artist WiseTwo Visits WITNESS
Posted on October 11, 2013 by Sarah Kerr
WiseTwo is a Kenyan street artist based in Nairobi. His art is strongly rooted in social activism and often portrays imagery and messages related to human rights and politics. He was recently selected to participate in the “Spray for Change” initiative, where 10 Kenyan street artists were chosen to paint murals on the entrance leading up to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. This summer he traveled to the US to participate in the Wall Therapy Festival in Rochester, New York and take part in a number of other projects with American street artists, including members of the The Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn, NY and Jersey Fresh Jam in New Jersey. WiseTwo stopped by WITNESS in August with fellow street artist Joel Artista to discuss the intersection of social action, street art and video advocacy.
Sarah Kerr: Can you briefly describe your work and the process of how you work with communities to determine your subject matter? What are your favorite types of messages/subjects to portray in mural art?
WiseTwo: Stylistically, my work mainly focuses on traditional culture and draws inspiration from African masks, ornaments and ancient forms of writings that flourished in many African civilizations along with Sanskrit calligraphy from South Asia (India, Nepal, and Tibet). Thematically, my work tends to focus on messages related to human rights, political emancipation, activism and education.
Whether or not I work directly with communities is based on the nature of the project and its magnitude. However, just regular painting and street art involves working with the community indirectly in one way or another as well. This second kind of interaction normally happens through the mural creation process itself, which facilitates dialogue and interaction between the artist and the immediate community that surrounds the artist. I usually have not determined the subject matter when I begin painting because I want to absorb the environment around me as I go. This stems from my belief that it is better for the local community to air their grievances to the artist rather than the artist assuming what affects them individually or collectively.
SK: Can you speak briefly about how can street art be used as a tool for change? Can you give an example of a project/campaign that you worked on that ties together art and political activism?
WiseTwo: Since its inception, street art has inspired action and sparked social change all over the world. Even though it is one of the oldest forms of expression, the act of writing a name or “tagging” in its modern form is quiet new. Revolutions, awareness programs, human rights issues, and political issues are the primary focus for many street artists and in that respect, I think street art is creating a certain chain reaction of change. I was one of the artists involved in the Vulture Campaign in Kenya, and although I came aboard a bit late, I feel that the ideas presented were revolutionary and incredibly creative. To me, this kind of action is a form of non-violent political activism.
SK: Can you describe the level of political organization amongst street artists in your community and globally?
WiseTwo: The level of political organization among street artists in my community is impressive. Kenyan street artists understand the magnitude of politics and how important it is in daily life but they also acknowledged that not everything is run by politics. I believe that is what motives them to do more art that speaks to other important aspects of life. Globally, there isn’t any formal political organization amongst street artists. However, most artists understand the importance of politics in street art and that street art can be a healthy form of political expression. Even though street art pops up in different places all over the globe, the issues depicted are often similar and are often influenced by political activism and human rights.
SK: Can you describe the current legal landscape in respect to street art? What are the challenges and opportunities this presents?
WiseTwo: Street art is increasingly being seen and accepted by people from all different walks of life. Unlike traditional art, street art cannot be put in a gallery for the rest of eternity. A street artist know that the streets will always be the biggest gallery they can be in, and that creates an enduring motivation amongst them and helps street art remain one of the purest forms of art.
In terms of opportunities and challenges, the opportunities outweigh the challenges. Street art is slowly being accepted into main stream society but I believe it will always maintain the raw and purist form of expression that not many art forms have managed to hold on to.
SK: How do you currently use video in your work? Are there other ways you hope to use video in the future to amplify your message and share your work?
WiseTwo: The use of video is very important because street art has to be documented for future use. Films that document the process or the making of the mural itself create further dialogue in the community and bring the issues to light (also they allow the viewer to appreciate the planning and work that goes into the painting of a mural). There hasn’t been a project that I have failed to document via video. In the future I plan to do more with video and create a “life journey” collection that documents my travels, all the murals I have painted all over the world and key dialogues that have been inspired by street art.
SK: How has the Westgate Mall attack affected your community and your art?
WiseTwo: The Westgate attacks were a tragedy and truly sad days for Kenya. Personally, I lost friends that I had not seen in a while (since I was on tour in the US). It really took a toll on me, but at the time I was reading a book called, “Wisdom of the Buddha” and it made this situation easier to deal with.
At the moment I am not working on any art related to the Westgate attacks, but in due time I believe that art will emerge that will deal with the subject. I suspect it will highlight the primary questions in most people’s minds revolving around whether we as Kenyans have our priorities in check or if we are, instead, just surviving each day as it comes.