Adam Masava: How I use art to empower the youth

It’s only recently that I have started appreciating that art is a way of expression; it’s a way of earning a living and a way of changing the narrative behind many societal issues. As a child, I would bump into my father’s paintings of houses and mountains. I thought they looked awesome.  I tried drawing things on my own. Well I wasn’t that bad but they weren’t original. Somewhere along the line, when creative arts were abolished from the syllabus, my interest just disappeared.

What’s with Nairobi and traffic anyway? Sometimes I wish I could just fly to my destination. Here I am on my way to Adam’s studio in South B shopping center, and then suddenly the roads are closed, apparently there is a walk taking place. I got there eventually and for the first time, I’m in a real workshop where the work is taking place. Every time I come across paintings or other pieces of art, mostly in restaurants, I tend to imagine the process was just as simple and well clean, if that’s the word.

Adam at work

I’m welcomed by young men at work: some are cutting pieces of wood; I assume those are the frames for the art work. Coming to think of it, I had never seen where the process actually starts but oh well, there’s first time for everything right?

‘I use two different types of materials which are old cartons and used roofing sheets. I want to tell stories about the positivity that exists in slums which is contrary to the common stories that people often hear. I grew up in Mukuru slums,’ explains Adam.


He gives me a picture of how the work actually starts. We look outside into an old building with rusting iron sheets due to the change in weather which makes it change into different colours. Adam says it’s more like an abstract painting. An aerial view of a slum would make you imagine you are looking at a canvas, ready to portray a certain story, whichever you may wish.

‘First, I use the carton and stick it on a canvas using white paint after making a sketch. After that, I paint different activities going on in the slums especially those that show people working to get an income,’ says Adam. It’s a beautiful outcome which I wish you as my reader would see. A painting could go for about twenty five thousand Kenya shillings and Adam wants to be one of the greatest artists in the world.

Kids enjoying the field of arts

‘I used to buy the iron sheets mainly after there was a fire in the slum and then I would recycle the scrap metal. Buying also allows the person whose house has burnt down to get some money. These days, I also look for people who want to renovate their houses and buy the iron sheet which I can use for my work. You have to burn the iron sheet so that it’s lighter and hence easier to shape.  Normally, I try to allow the material to maintain its natural form by applying shellac on it so that it does not continue to rust,’ adds Adam.

Adam will soon host an exhibition in Runda where he will be focussing on women working in the slums. This is a dedication to his late mother who Adam wants to honour. She earned her living as a domestic worker to raise her children. Despite not earning a lot of money, she stayed determined. He has already started working on some which display some women cooking, selling grocery and washing clothes. I was amused by the painting which Adam calls ‘githeri man,’ only that githeri man is wearing a darker suit and the woman is in brighter clothes selling githeri to him. For those who are wondering who this man is: he caused a lot of humour on social media last year during the general elections. He was captured on a voting que eating a traditional meal which is a mixture of maize and beans. The funny bit was the memes that arose from that. Many agree that it helped to ease the tension during the political season.

At Dadaab

I’ve never understood storied buildings that are built using iron sheets. I always imagine that the wind will just come and blow them away. Adam says that the material used is very strong because they are built by skilled handymen. I look at the painting of such a building, I’m still not sure I’m convinced.

There are also many children who learn how to do art through Adam’s mentorship. It’s amazing that they have an opportunity to work practically. He also does workshops in schools where he conducts training on art related activities. They develop their own styles in the work they do which creates room for originality.

At Dadaab

Recently, Adam travelled to Dadaab refugee camp, an inspiring experience for him. He managed to interact with 25 refugees, men and women, young and old, all interested in using art as a way of earning. The main means of working material was ink and jik which is used in bleaching. He also tells me about the masterpieces that are drawn on the body using henna. Many of the Somali women don’t know that the work can be put up on long lasting materials. His encouragement is for the women to draw the art on pieces of paper or canvas which can then be placed in homes. They will even earn more from this.

Further, they made masks which will be used in making a film to highlight the plight of refugees in Kakuma refugee camp. They have many needs which include accessing healthcare and education. He wishes to provide an exhibition platform in collaboration with collectors and galleries for them to display their work here in Nairobi where there is a larger market for their work. This is because there is only one annual market day where they have the chance to sell their work, which is not enough.

Winning an award

I also met Isaiah, a form three student at Kamukunji High School who learnt his skill at Adam’s workshop. For him, art is a way of highlighting the importance of education. He points out to a man pulling a cart. The man refused to go to school and life eventually became difficult. He also showed me another piece where there was an old vehicle which is used to collect garbage around the neighbourhood. The employees who pick up the trash are young men who did not have the chance to get a good education. Isaiah says they remind him of the people we don’t appreciate, without them, our streets would be dirty.

His main style is recycling old exercise book pages which he sticks on the canvas. He then makes sketches which bring out the different messages he wants to use. ‘I use this style because students spend money to buy exercise books. They then use a lot of energy to write notes. Therefore, I don’t want these to go to waste,’ he explains. Isaiah makes me wish I knew him before I lit a bonfire on my exercise books after high school.  Coming to think of it, I spent a lot of time writing. Anyway, I digress. Isaiah uses the money he gets to pay his fees. He is also interested in hip hop and dreams of becoming a great musician some day. In 2015, he won an art contest by Toyota and had the opportunity to travel to Japan. However, this did not materialise because of difficulties in getting documentation for travel.

Adam’s hope for the future is that he will have the chance to fundraise through art and build an art class on the rooftop of his workshop. This will be an opportunity to give back and allow young people to be empowered. He is also excited that Diani Beach has agreed to showcase his and his students’ art work in December. He is hopeful that many people will purchase them as it will be a tourist peak season. Some of his friends and clients have even agreed to showcase his work in their houses; a breakthrough that he believes will contribute significantly to his cause.

Art is used to stop drug abuse

The interview ended with a stroll to the market where we had fish and Ugali for lunch. The fish was delicious, I’m just saying. However, my take home from this was that you should pursue what you love, with determination. If you are budding artist, trust the process.


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