“Even from way back in primary school, I always saw myself as an artist.” Kevin Oduor says. “So I started behaving like an artist. I started drawing. That was my mindset then, that an artist was a person who drew. But over time, that changed. It was no longer about drawing. It was also about the way I thought, but that came much later. And that’s why I’m saying in the early years I used to behave like I’m an artist. But now I don’t feel the same.”
He’s having coffee at Java. It’s a hot afternoon.
Now he feels that the kind of art he does affects society in general. People react to it in a certain way and it’s puzzling as it is flattering. Kevin Oduor is a renowned sculptor. His work is prominent in the artistic space. He’s credited to have done the Dedan Kimathi sculpture in Nairobi’s CBD immortalising the Mau Mau freedom fighter. He did the sculpture that stands as a centerpiece at Syokimau Railway Station. Syokimau was a Kamba prophetess who “saw” the coming of the “metallic snake.” He also did the sculptures of the freedom fighters at Uhuru Park. At Jogoo Road Railway station, there is a pillar of his work commemorating the labour movement of the 1950s and 60s heralded by the late Tom Mboya.
“The kind of artist I have transformed to be is not just for the sake of art, but I have noticed that my pieces make people think and feel in a different way.” He says. “I think this means to a certain extent that I can manipulate what people think about my art.”
At a first glance, it seems unfair to mention that Kevin Oduor is one armed. It’s the elephant in the room, but thankfully you never quite have to address that elephant because he is only too happy to talk about it. When he was 12 years old, he was involved in a bad road accident that saw his right arm amputated. After that, he had to relearn everything as a result; writing, dressing up, tying shoelaces…
“I had to find a different way of doing things.” He says. “It was a challenging period and I think from that was born an artistic need to always find a different way of exploring my art. I don’t think of set norms anymore; when the driving schools and government insisted I couldn’t get a driver’s licence, I proved that I could, and I did. When people thought I couldn’t sculpt, I simply sculpted taller and bigger sculptures.” He pauses. “I’m a better artist because of losing my one arm.”
No one normally believes he can do the work he does and that spurs him. “I like to put that doubt into a body of work.” He says with a cheeky smile. His creative process, inspired by the human figure, goes something like this: He sits down with a commissioning client. They ask, “Can you do this? Can you do it in a way you feel you’re free to do?” Then they talk about it some more. He leaves and sits down and thinks about it in his own space. Normally the final work is a product of a lengthy process of internalisation and artistic debate.
“Like the Uhuru Park freedom piece, I had the real Mau Mau enact the scene and took lots of pictures.” He says. “I talked to them, asked many questions, got inspirations that went into my draft ideas and some that went out of it. I get into this creative space of adding and subtracting until I find the exact piece that I want, then I get to work.”
He doesn’t have a workshop, he works from home. Doesn’t that space always fill with artistic expressions? “I don’t know about that, but I know there are people who want me to get a proper studio to work in, but why should I when my home provides that creative space I need to create?” He poses.
One wonders if artists have alter-egos, if they imagine that they would come back reincarnated as something else, like bankers, stunt-masters, teachers, balloonists, adventurers, professional cyclists, cooks… “My dad wanted me to be a pastor.” He chuckles. “That didn’t work. I’m just an artist.”
Is it lucrative?
“When I started, it was a job for the street urchins. Now it’s an inspiration to many, which makes me very happy, being an inspiration to many. To many young and upcoming artists, to many who thought an artist cannot have this or do that. And I’m proud of that.”
He downs his coffee. Looks around and says absentmindedly, “I have a function in this building later in the next two hours. I’m giving a talk.” He isn’t dressed to give a talk, but who cares when he looks like he is the talk?