In the late 90s, Joseph Ngatia operated a taxi from Madaraka Shopping Center in Nairobi. It was a small jalopy with a busted exhaust pipe and a back-left door that would not close properly. He had to come out to open and close the door for his fares. Which was fine, because it made them feel special. He worked days and sometimes he worked nights. Then he got a client from the GoDown Arts Centre. She had banners and ribbons and all these decorative thingimajigs that she wanted ferried to St Andrew’s Church in Westlands for an evening function. Her name was Faith. This was way back in 2000. The next day, Faith called again to say she wanted to be dropped off to a different part of town. He came early and hung around. He had never been to the GoDown Arts Centre before, never hung around artists. To burn time he walked over to the end of the compound where dancers, whom he later learnt were Sarakasi dancers, were writhing and gyrating. He stood there, hands thrust in pockets, thinking to himself, “Boy, what on earth is going on in this centre?”
He remembers striking a conversation with one of the Sarakasi people. Told him he was a taxi man, you know, if ever a need arose. Numbers were exchanged in the midst of the drums and clapping and flipping. Someone called the next day; they needed to go to Gigiri for a gig. Over the next month he met other artists occupying space at the GoDown and they too became his clients. He moved permanently from Nairobi West and became the taxi man of choice when any artist needed to move or ferry things.
It’s been 17 years.
He has since changed cars a few times. He has seen dozens of artists come to the centre, and go. He has interacted with them, broken bread with them, driven them around to their engagements as he sat in front and listened to them speak to each other and on the phone. He has immersed in their world.
“What I know about these artists is that they are all different.” He says. “You can’t put them in one box. They are not homogenous; painters behave differently from actors who behave differently from animators who also behave differently from musicians and sculptures. I’m fascinated by all of them, their peculiarities.”
But is there a common gold thread that ties them all together?
He thinks about this. “They are thinkers. All of them think a lot. I think creators are always thinking; what do I do next, how can I do this better, what is the next big creation?” He says.
What of the notion that artists are temperamental?
“I don’t know if I can classify all of them as temperamental.” Pause. “I look at them as people who create, not as artists, and they are all unique. Some will sit in my taxi and not say a word today, but tomorrow as I drop them off to a job they will be chatty. Most are chatty and uninhibited. I’m sure the same would apply to a banker or a teacher.” He seems to change his mind. “ Although I find painters very intense when they are working, their concentration is more focused. Overall, I think what they have in common is their dressing; they never wear suits or ties even if they are going to meet the president.” He laughs.
There is a saying that when you hang out with the wolves you learn to howl. Does that apply to Ngatia? Has hanging around artists as clients, perhaps, provoked the artist in him?
“I wouldn’t say so but it has made me appreciate them more.” He says. “Before coming here to work, I didn’t know anything about art, or artists. I found them odd. But now I know a lot of them and they are interesting people with great minds.”
The old GoDown Arts Centre will be no more. In its place, a modern behemoth will stand. He thinks it’s great, that change is great. The modern centre might replace the old centre but the memories will remain. And he has many. “I have met great people here, from VIPs who support art, to activists. I have seen artists come up from nothing to build a name for themselves and that makes me proud, the commitment and drive to stick to something you are passionate about even when it doesn’t seem to be working. I think there is happiness to be found in that conviction. They are now scattered all over the country and globe, doing yoga, making famous sculptures, producing amazing TV shows etc. But it all started here and I was privileged to see the growth and somehow be a part of that artistic growth.”
If he believes in reincarnation, what kind of artist would he come back as?
“A dancer.” He says.
“Because on top of being art, it’s also a form of exercise. I think dancers can live longer than painters.” He says it in jest. His phone rings. An airport pick up. Someone is boarding in Kisumu and will land in the next 40mins. He has to go and as he takes his car keys, he says, “Listen, the world needs as many artists as it can get. I hope this new place is built on that foundation.”