Every Monday we have our Pearls and Heels segment where we feature women and their careers. Today’s Pearls And Heels Lady is Wambui Kamiru Collymore. Wambui Kamiru is the Founder of The Art Space. An independent commercial art gallery situated on Riverside Drive in Nairobi. She holds an MSc. in African Studies from the University of Oxford. Her focus is on Kenyan History. As an artist, Wambui has been developing artwork around the theme of colonialism, identity and independence in Africa. Her main medium is installation and her work has been exhibited in Kenya, South Africa and Denmark.
Wambui has worked in advertising, technology, education and in the development world. Key experiences that have impacted her life include developing housing for Afghan refugees that served the needs of women as heads of households, research into the use of mobile applications that sought to reunite refugee families globally, creating the research protocol for an online hate speech monitoring tool, and developing an interdisciplinary curriculum for a regional university.
1. Describe your typical day?
The only typical part of my day is when I wake up at 6 am to go to the gym and get the kids ready for school. After that it could be anything from hanging a new exhibition, meeting artists, buyers, and other partners in the visual arts industry, visiting artists in their studios, collecting or delivering artwork etc. It just depends where we are in the cycle of a show at The Art Space. We usually have dinner as a family (all phones off). On an easy night, the whole family is in bed by 10 pm.
2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a policewoman because I admired the power that they had in organizing people. Then I wanted to become a fashion designer because I wanted to influence style. I then wanted to become a photographer because I enjoyed what it demanded of me to frame an image, to capture a moment and the right lighting and placement of objects, all this in a split moment. Finally, I wanted to become an artist because it is all these things. This last bit is where I feel my soul has always been.
3. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I would have chosen to be an artist earlier and then pursued it wholeheartedly. I would have also taken courses in carpentry, and studied car mechanics or electrical engineering. I am fascinated by how things work and building things.
I got caught up in my parents’ expectations that I would become something “solid,” like a pilot, doctor, engineer or architect.
4. What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
Patience. That’s a big one. I have to be patient with just about everyone. I tend to be quite demanding and I often have to remember that everyone moves at their own pace.
Fluid thought. Interesting problems come up all the time and you have to be able to find interesting solutions to them.
Being adventurous and open to saying “Why not.” Opportunities don’t always come as planned. Your reaction to those opportunities is the only thing you can dictate.
5. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
I love Nairobi because structures are not in place in the way they may be in London, New York or Berlin. We have the opportunity to leapfrog ahead of a lot of the world. We can learn from what the rest of the world is doing without having to go through the same mistakes. We can build improved structures using other peoples’ experiences.
Nairobi isn’t the easiest place to do business. The number of licenses and permits are cumbersome. There are a number of fees and taxes to take into account and on top of all of these are corrupt petty officers. To begin with, it is advisable to open a business in November and not in June. Business licenses are currently offered from January to December. That means if you open a business in June, you pay for the whole of that year and in January, you have to pay again for another 12 months. November is the earliest one can register a new business for the following year. I know it is in the works to fix that, but such issues make it hard to grow legitimate business and there are countless examples of these.
I think Nairobi is becoming more open to the type of work that I do. We aren’t there yet and a lot of education is needed for art to be considered an integral part of our society. We need to understand that expression can be monetized. I didn’t choose the most straightforward industry but therein is the excitement. We can do it here in Nairobi.
Over the last couple of months, I have come across “mahustlers” taking an interest in this sector. This suggests that people are beginning to take note of the opportunities in it. Funny story, a couple of months back a guy tried to sell me Chinese art out of the trunk of his car. He understood I ran a gallery, but not exactly what type of gallery. I gave him an “A” for effort but said, “No, thank you.” to the art.
6. What motivates you?
The possibility of a future where it is admirable to be an artist in Kenya – full-time, making a good living. That parents will one day, encourage their children to become artists. That we will no longer have closet artists; those people who come into my gallery saying, “I used to paint and now I am an accountant.” I want the vibrancy of a strong art market and industry, where Kenyan art is recognized in the way that those from Nigeria, China, Vietnam the U.S. and South Africa are.
It would be ideal to have policies and structures that support self-expression, because only through this expression can we raise questions. By raising questions, we can chart a critically thought-out path for our country. We will be confident in this path because we began from a place of questioning. I have always said that artists are prophets and that they act like mirrors to society. We need more prophets and more mirrors. We need philosophers of great thought so that we are not only fulfilling the technical but we are also dreaming the future into being.
I dream of the possibility of the integration of the visual arts into society and as a practical step, that 10% of all new buildings built, will reserve space for art from Kenyan artists. Or policies where the government gives license and supports artists in creating contemporary public artwork in public spaces like parks, street corners and roundabouts. These two gestures would transform all buildings into art galleries and public spaces into art spaces. Wouldn’t it be grand if this were a government policy?
7. How do you define success?
I think success is linked with happiness and fulfilment and not necessarily related to money.
To me, it is having a positive impact on someone else’s life. Even if it is just one person at a time. It may be through a brief chance meeting or through a relationship. I think success is connecting with the human part of another individual. It can be something as small as the moment when someone else understands that you see them. So I guess there are many opportunities for success every day.
Success is treading on the earth gently, with no harm, while taming the dragon that is your ego.
8. Who has been your greatest inspiration?
That’s a difficult question. I think there is a person for each season of my life.
Currently, I am inspired by the artwork by Ai Weiwei. Most of my recent artwork has been repetitive and I see the same in his work. I also like the scale and seeming impossibility of his work. I like how he creates simple but powerful works. I am drawn by how he weaves social messages into aesthetically entrancing pieces. He is currently on the Syrian border with Jordan documenting border crossings and I can’t wait to see what he produces out of this.
9. What is your favourite aspect of your job?
My favourite aspect of my job is in seeing the artist move from initial concept to final work. It doesn’t end here, however; I love to hear an artist say there is more to come. I feel fulfilled when the artist takes a step back and is awed by their work, genuinely awed, and is then energized to produce more. Another favourite aspect is meeting a first-time buyer and converting them to the following of art. I love seeing them grow in their knowledge and taste in what they are buying and why.
10. What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
Learning to deal with failure. We often hear about how someone is successful but rarely hear about how they journeyed to get there. I see failure as an opportunity to lick your wounds and learn. It can be very painful but you have to come back stronger. I am not at all embarrassed by failure and sometimes I surprise myself by how I react to my setbacks. In fact, my sister put this in context the other day. She said, “Embarrassment is a choice.” When you free yourself from what people think of you, to do what needs to be done, you can’t be stopped. Running your own business is hard, especially when you are the cleaner, receptionist, administrator, curator, manager and CEO. But the joy of a clean gallery is almost equal to the joy of a substantial sale.
Adaptability. You meet so many people, of all sorts and you have to learn so many new tricks you can’t be stuck doing something the same way, especially if it is not working.
Resilience. Sometimes you have to just look at a day, break it down into hours and then live it hour by hour. Some days are just hard. Then some days you have to live 10 days in one – so much happening and you have the urge to split yourself into 15 pieces to accomplish it all. You have to be fluid to match the tempo of the day.
11. What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Knock on the doors of others who have done it before. I lean heavily on the doors of partners in the arts industry and I ask a lot of questions. It is ok to say I don’t know and then to seek out the answers. I am documenting my process because, maybe, it might help someone else open another gallery. The same goes for my art practice. I may not know how a material can be used but I know the people I need to talk to in order to understand the material.
12. What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of your career?
Opening the door each morning to the space, which I founded and now run. Old friends keep telling me that this gallery has always been my dream. I don’t remember actually saying it. Maybe I knew it would happen and so I never said it – at least to myself. It just became. And I am here now.
I have had many careers in my life but none has been as scary as this one. Still, I love the edge it gives me. I also love the opportunities being presented to me to influence things beyond my gallery. Where I am now, requires me to have a bigger picture in mind and this bigger picture is both scary and life-giving.
13. What makes you happy?
Happy children. Mine or someone else’s.
Research. I can get pretty nerdy on just about anything, especially biology, medicine, history, astronomy and generally, science. I think that comes from having a mother who is a scientist and owning a microscope by the time I was 10. My kids at age six already own a microscope – but I feel it is more for me and we often fight over what we are going to make specimens of.
Strangers with strange stories. I was that kid my Mom worried about. I used to talk to everyone and my Mom was often worried that one day I would just get into a car and go off with a stranger. For some reason, I find myself in the weirdest conversations with people. It makes me deeply happy to meet someone I am never going to meet again and for a brief moment, to feel like I have always been a part of their lives. I still talk to strangers and I have the wackiest of stories from them. There is something freeing about being receptive to what someone else wants to talk about without wanting to dominate the conversation with my own opinion.
14. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I read a lot of online articles from the New York Times to Science Magazine. I like human interest stories and watch Aljazeera’s features often and listen to BBC World Service. I listen to a lot of different types of music. I like discovering. I like discovering places, people and stuff. Going to a new city is super exhilarating and I don’t mind getting lost. In fact, the idea of “getting lost” is a fallacy. You are always where you are supposed to be at any given time. You just have to be open to the why and relax into it.
15. Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
10 years is not far away but it is a long time. Nothing is promised to us except that things change. The only near absolute and dear wish I have is that I will still be a Mom. For everything else, my heart is open. I see myself continuing to create because that is what I do. I will continue to create art, words, projects, experiences, spaces and relationships etc.
You can interact with Wambui on Twitter at @wambuikamiru. Find The Art Space Kenya on Facebook at “The Art Space Kenya” Page. Also check The Art Space Kenya on IG: @artspaceke. Check out Wambui’s Artist Blog and also the “Who I Am, Who We Are” Kenya National Identity Project.