Photo Credit: Elizabeth Okwach
How the Graffiti Girls Kenya Use Public Art to Shine a Light on Gender Based Violence
The Graffiti Girls Kenya collective are painting murals that address a wide range of societal ills.
In Kenya, a group of fearless women are finding ways to express themselves by painting graffiti. In the process, these women are challenging stereotypes by visualizing civic issues that are impacting their community.
Working in Kenya’s capital Nairobi — and major surrounding cities — Graffiti Girls Kenya are painting murals that are gracing the walls of creative hubs and community centers. Even though the murals are bright with color, the themes of these works cover a wide range of societal ills.
Recently, Graffiti Girls Kenya produced a three part series centered around gender based violence.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Okwach
Recently, the collective produced a three part series centered around gender based violence, which culminated with a huge mural in the Baba Ndogo neighborhood in Nairobi. Last month, OkayAfrica spent a Saturday afternoon with the girls as they painted the second mural in their series. This mural features a young woman in bold colors with a hand covering her mouth. According to the Graffiti Girls, the mural depicts how many women are afraid to speak out about violence they face on a daily basis.
“Gender based violence is very rampant here. Most ladies prefer to be beaten by their boyfriends as a proof of love. If they are not beaten, they feel like they are not loved,” Yvonne Nzilani, an artist and member of the Graffiti Girls Kenya who lives in Baba Ndogo, told OkayAfrica. “But I don’t agree with that. There are those who speak out but the majority don’t. For those who report to the authorities, their situation worsens. So, most ladies prefer not to speak out. When we do these murals on the streets and at community centers, it encourages more women going through gender based violence to come out and speak out, as there are people who can listen to them.”
The Graffiti Girls Kenya initiative was formed back in 2015 by Douglas Smoki Kihiko, a renowned artist from Kenya. The point of the program was to create a space for women to learn the impact of advocacy through art.“I formed Graffiti Girls Kenya because young women interested in graffiti didn’t have a platform to discover and explore their talent," Kihiko told OkayAfrica. "When they wanted to learn, there was no space or someone to teach them. Back in 2015, we had a studio and young girls could come in to mingle with us, but they were unable because our studio was full of boys.”
Twenty-two year old Graffiti Girl artist Njeri Wahome, who lives in Langata, Nairobi, retaliated that most women artists are not taken seriously as they are seen as “women” instead of artists. Nzilani, who goes by yvonne-nzilani, said being a female graffiti artist in a predominantly "patriarchal society" is challenging but she has always worked hard on her craft. “I do it for the passion I have. I want people to have hope once they see my murals on the streets or in the creative hubs, Nzilani said.” The mural can fail to impact someone immediately, but there comes a time when that mural will have an impact on someone’s life. ``
There is a lot of thought and preparation behind these pieces of work. The process of creating a mural begins with a weekly meeting with research on issues affecting the community, a conversation where girls share their experiences and have deep discussion on the issues. They then do sketches and create murals in the afternoon.
“For me, when I draw such a mural, it is a success story. There is this notion that women cannot draw. Actually, the women who go through gender based violence when they see such kind of murals and find out it is a woman who did it, they look for you just to talk even if you won’t solve their problems,” Nzilani said. “In fact, there are so many girls who have come forward to talk to me. They normally tell me what they are going through.”
Nzilani is a relatively new comer to the space. She started painting in 2018 when she met her mentor Joan Otieno. It has not been a smooth journey for her, mainly due to resistance from her parents — who don't see art as a noble profession — and building owners who demand money to let her paint on the walls. Despite the challenges, Yvonne has continued to stay positive about her work.
"When we do these murals on the streets and at community centers, it encourages more women going through gender based violence to come out and speak out."
Nelly Bradbury, 22, recognized her talent while in high school and started doing graffiti art after she confided in one of her friends who introduced her to Graffiti Girls Kenya. Since then, Bradbury has never looked back. Speaking on her work now, Bradbury talks about the importance of the message they're trying to get across, especially around issues that are so pressing.
Gender based violence has become a silent pandemic across the world with reports indicating that 1/3 of women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. In Kenya, the most recent government report (from 2014) shows that 45 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15-45 have faced physical, mental or sexual violence and many cases go unreported.
Bradbury sees public art as a crucial venue to address this problem.
“Our messaging through graffiti is bold and clear. When people are passing by they are able to see it and even guide them, Bradbury said. “I believe that public art is changing the social conditions of our community and instilling a deep sense of dignity. It is also changing peoples’ stories that have been ignored or overlooked.”
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