“I see beauty in everything.”- Stephen Nyaga Hiram
You only need two minutes of conversation with Stephen Nyaga to feel his love for art. It’s actually infectious. Stephen Nyaga Hiram is a visual artist who uses his work to express the beauty of life. He has done illustrations for Phoenix publishers, UNICEF and other organizations. He is also one of the artists whose work has featured in Safaricom’s This Is My Kenya project.
Having seen his work from his latest series, African Beauty, I sat down with this man whose work is magical to learn more about him and his work.
Who is Stephen Nyaga and what is your background?
Stephen Nyaga is a visual artist. I have been doing art since the early 2000s. I have worked with corporate and then I decided to go solo and work on projects as an individual.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a visual artist who lives for art. I draw, paint, I sculptor and a bit of welding too. I’m an artist who works with many materials to create artwork such as paper, canvas, charcoal, wood, or metal. I try out different things and styles in my work.
Why art? At what point did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
I have always loved drawing. When I was in class 4 there was a drawing competition in Nakuru. The competition organizers wanted students to draw legends. So I drew Luanda Magere and I won the competition. That’s when I first got the thought that this was something I could do and be among the best. So I kept drawing and practising throughout my school life. After completing high school, my dad wanted me to do engineering but I told him that wasn’t where my heart was. I wanted to do art. Luckily he didn’t have any objection so he told me to get an arts school. That’s when I joined the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts (BIFA), which in my opinion is the best Fine Arts institution in East Africa.
So you went to BIFA and completed, how did you seek out opportunities?
For me, I was lucky because I got my first contract in my second year of college. A lecturer liked my work and he connected me to Phoenix Publishers. I drew illustrations for children’s storybooks. That opened up more doors for me and I got to work with UNICEF and other organizations. With time I have had some clients seek me out and I have also participated in competitions.
How important do you think attending art school is for an artist?
I think it’s very important. Art school doesn’t really teach you how to draw or how to be creative because that’s already in you but it breaks down the process for you so that it becomes easier for you. It sort of gives you a shortcut on how to go about it.
Secondly, you learn how to structure your art as a business. They guide you on how to earn from it. You learn a number of tricks on how to handle people and how to handle things in the art world generally. Art school also give you a chance to network. You network with other artists and potential clients. So art school is important and if you are not able to attend a school then joining artist networks and spaces like the GoDown Art Centre at South B is important. Such platforms give you that kind of structure.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From the day to day to life; the things I see around me. I see the beauty in everything. For example, if I leave this studio and walk on the streets, I focus on what’s going around me, not my destination. I’ll look at the people and the things they’ve worn, the colours, what they are doing and commit it to memory. I look at something like streetlights from many angles and get a different perspective. So basically, my inspiration comes from everything around me.
What do you aim at communicating with your art?
Beauty. Like for this series, in particular, I’ve named it the African Beauty series and I am working on my 30th piece.
What themes do you pursue?
I’ve done a whole array of themes in my work from drawings to paintings. However, with this particular series, the African Beauty series I would say I have found my signature. You can see the tribal marks and patterns detail in the pieces. I am using charcoal, chalk and acrylics for this particular series. The paintings are black because I want to showcase African beauty.
What’s the most memorable response to your work?
The word I have heard many times is ‘incredible.’
We spotted his work at the Talisman restaurant. Here are some of his other pieces that we saw.
Do you have a hard time parting with pieces? Is there an emotional attachment?
Always. I feel that way with each and every piece. Like the piece that I just completed, I had a hard time parting with it. You know you put your heart and mind to it from scratch to the final product. There’s a lot of emotional attachment to that.
What’s your best work so far?
My best work is the next one which I’ve not done. It’s the coming piece after the one I’ve done.
Art in Kenya; can it sustain one financially?
Yes, I would say it is. I have done this all my life as my main occupation. However, it depends on how you perceive it because art is not easy. You have to work on your skills and perfect them such that you stand out and clients look for you. You need to get to a point where your work speaks for you so that you have an easier time getting opportunities.
In the creative process, do you ever get a creative block?
Not really, because I believe that the creative process is not just about creating a piece. The creative process starts with the thought process. Even when I’m relaxing and I’m not working on anything I look at things around me and try to twist how I see them. I’ll probably be watching the sunset and how the clouds appear and then try to look at it from different angles. That will probably be something I will use to create an art piece. So I’m always in the creative process even when not drawing or painting or sculpturing. Creativity is the beauty of living. I believe we’re brought to this earth to live and make it as beautiful as we can. Our time here is finite, which is a good thing so we need to see that beauty and make everything as beautiful as we can.
There’s a shift in people’s appreciation of art in Kenya, why do you think this is happening?
That’s true. I think the world is evolving and the media has really helped. People have more exposure and are more open-minded towards it.
Tell us about This Is My Kenya. How was the experience, how did you become part of it and what has been the impact?
I appreciate it so much. It has been a wonderful experience. So in 2018, there was a competition for artists to tell a story about Kenya. Luckily, I had done a painting in 2015 that fitted into the competition’s theme. When I did the painting, I was trying to do something different. That was a representation of the place I used to live in at that time. So the painting emerged as one of the best and was in the 2019 Safaricom calendar too. The experience also opened up more opportunities for me so I am thankful for it.
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Do you a dream project in your bucket list?
I do things as they come. I live in the moment. Anything I think of, I do it at that point.
What’s your advice to young artists?
Keep doing what you are doing. Take time to understand who you are so that you can create authentic work and then eliminate any form of fear that you may have. Then keep working on your art, the rest will come on its own. Trust the process.
Two artists you would like to be compared with or have your work ranked with?
(He vehemently disagrees with compared with) Compared with, no. I believe everyone has something unique in them and in their work so they should work on that. Don’t compare yourself with others because everyone is cut from a different cloth. What I compare myself with is who I want to be. I compare my work with my previous work and my vision for my work. Every artist is special in their own way.
You can follow him and more of his work here.