Dagoretti town has never been short of a creative culture of conjuring up interesting and beautiful works of art. Along Ngong Road, on your way to Karen, Dagoretti artisans have been showcasing all manner of wooden and metal artefacts for decades now.
It is the place of choice for most expatriates looking to buy a few quality pieces of authentic Kenyan handicrafts. The variety to choose from is as wide as it is beautiful – whether wood or metal.
But nothing is as spectacular as the new wildlife art now taking centre stage in any crafts shop you visit in Dagoretti. Real-life sculptures of wildlife we are only used to seeing in National Parks and Game Reserves around Kenya seem to suddenly have found a home on the sidelines of the busy Ngong Road.
They are so real, and passersby slow down in amazement – if only to catch a glimpse of a menacing hippo gazing at the drainage tunnel nearby or a Rothschild’s giraffe towering above the maze of neighbourhood power lines.
I, for one, have been taken aback on several occasions by the sheer genius of the craftsmanship behind these art pieces. It is like driving through an open-air art gallery – only free. After a long season of secret admiration, I could no longer resist the temptation to write a story about it and what an experience I had when I did.
I wanted to hear the story of these artisans. Connect with their inspiration and share in their joy. I desired to share in the satisfaction they get when they see pieces of formless metal transform before their very eyes into classy art pieces. Do they get a chance to see where their craftsmanship ends up? Where it adorns the gardens and living rooms of Kenya’s leafy suburbia, receptions of star-rated hotels and even the State House? But mostly, I just wanted to admire and experience these beautiful works at close range.
Before the sculpture is displayed for you to admire as you pass by, it begins its journey of beauty as a framework of metal rods. The rods, when welded together, make up the ‘skeleton’ of the sculpture. This skeleton gets covered with pieces of carefully cut ‘mabati’ iron sheets.
The mabati sheets after that come together like a jigsaw puzzle under the artisan’s welding torch to form the body and the ‘skin’ of the sculpture. Am told the gauge used is slightly thicker than that in roofing sheets. Once the general structure of the sculpture comes to life, the next stage is the finishing.
“The kind of finishing will depend on the customer,” James, one of the artisans here, tells me. “Some clients want a paint finish while others prefer a more rustic look which we achieve through sanding,” he adds.
Sanding involves coating the surface of the sculpture with an adhesive material and later applying a layer of treated sand that gives the piece a very rough and realistic finish.
John, another artisan, tells me this is common with rhino, buffalo and hippo sculptures. Varnishing is another popular finishing option, especially if the statue will end up outdoors. It gives the piece a shiny, glossy appearance which also insulates it against corrosion.
Spending time with these artisans, made me appreciate the intricacy of this artform. The process that goes into pleasing our eyes is apparently not as simple as it looks. But so it is with any creative work. It is easy to get trapped in the illusion of simplicity. Often, we miss the complexity in the process as while we admire the beauty of the finished product.
James tells me it takes two weeks for three to four artisans working together to complete a single large sculpture. “Smaller pieces like the frogs and the flamingos take one artisan about a week,” he adds. The price tag also gives you some indication of the level of complexity involved.
Salome, a showroom attendant at one of the workshops, tells me the price may range from KES 3,500.00 for a frog piece to KES 150,000.00 for a rhino or giraffe sculpture.
Clients are equally diverse, I learn. They range from residential homeowners, just looking to beautify their lawns and gardens to restaurants and hotels desiring to add that touch of the African wilderness to their facilities. Interestingly, ranches and conservancies have a taste for this artform as well.
One of the main challenges Dagoretti artisans face is the usual one of competition which tends to affect pricing. “We know most of our neighbours are selling at much lower prices than us. But if you compare their quality and ours, then you understand why we charge more,” Salome tells me.
This way, they have established a niche which others may find hard to penetrate. “With time, most of our clients have come to appreciate the distinction. They do not mind paying a little bit more,” she concludes.
As I left Dagoretti, I could not help feel a new sense of admiration for these sculptures. Especially now that I had connected with their makers. I had interacted with the pieces up close and saw the intricate process involved. The dedication that went into giving the pieces ‘life’ was admirable. It was a weirdly gratifying feeling.
Next time you are driving along Ngong road, spare a few minutes and visit these Dagoretti artisans. I am sure you will find something that will tickle your fancy.