The Soi Family: Three Generations Of Brush And Canvas

A tribute to the late Ancent Soi, the exhibition traces the path of art from its humble home in Yatta to the sprawling city of Nairobi through the father, son, and granddaughter.

The Nairobi visual art scene is one silent organization with little noise in the media. Nevertheless, it is an interesting field with a lot happening and new artists emerging from the parents whose fame was swallowed in colonial murk and post-independence ignorance.

According to Thom Ongonga, an artist and curator of the exhibition, the history of Kenyan art was not documented well thus it has a lot of missing gaps and embellished stories. In spite of this, it is even hard to find comprehensive stories online about the legends who made what is now the vibrant Kenyan arts industry. Ongonga observes that the current Kenyan history can be traced to Gallery Watatu but art was practiced even before the gallery was opened.

The lack of documentation has made the history of Kenya art lack enthusiasm among the general public. Regardless, the unsung heroes in the art scene continue documenting events for the present and future generations.

Such heroes include the late Ancent Soi. Not only did Ancent Soi document and produce incredible art but he has sired a generation of present and future artists. Among them is his son Michael Soi and Granddaughter Malli Soi. The works of the three family members are currently on display at One Off Contemporary Art Gallery in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

The exhibition that opened Saturday, June 24, 2023, presents an interesting view of the change in perspective and also parental influence in the growth of the child. The relationship between father and son is brought into focus and also that of the father and daughter as one navigates through the art that now spans three generations.

Ancent Soi is among the founders of Kenya’s contemporary art. Ancent started selling wood carvings and paintings at the Nairobi City Market in the early sixties. Little did he know that he had just been initiated into the arts and under the apprenticeship of a Congolese artist Banto, he would learn painting.

Luck might have just have opened for Ancent because, at the same time, he started practicing art, the ESSO calendar competition opened. He ended up winning the top prize in the competition. The late former Vice President of Kenya and Art Enthusiast Joseph Murumbi was the judge of the competition. The seventies would also see him win the poster competition of 1972 and later a residency in Germany.

He indeed was set to be a great artist. Starting off and going international was no mean feat. It shows that Banto had seen a hidden potential in the young artist who was born and raised in Yatta, Machakos County.

Ancent was a keen artist exclusive with oil paints. His work is detailed and tells a story of tradition, culture, and the wild. Having lived and interacted with the three dimensions of the Yatta region, Ancent brings to the table a story to be admired and learn from. From the colour palate to the warm brushstrokes, his paintings embrace the eyes and calmly lead them home. The colour on the canvas speaks the language of the soul. It is at home with the warm sunrise and the crimson sunsets. It is the story of the only home the soul knows. It does not evoke nostalgia, it speaks to you in a language you know well.

From the landscapes populated with wildlife and the imposing baobab trees, Ancent walks us through the ecosystem he knew well. With detail, Ancent captures zebras in a fight, the Tsavo ecosystem, and the wildebeest migration. The serenity of nature and its unadulterated beauty is a marvel to behold. Despite the dry Tsavo and its harsh weather, it is a gem that needs to be preserved- a home to many species of animals and plants. Just like his pieces, this wild calls for our love.

Moving from the wild, Ancent draws us into village life. He wants to evoke communalism imbued in different activities: games like Bao and Dogfight brought people together to celebrate their days; the dowry ceremony and new baby ceremony were celebrated to mark the transition and the gift of life. In all these, the community was one large family where elders were respected and revered and the women spent time telling stories and grooming. Ancent wants us to observe a happy life within the construct of family and the community, to see the beauty in our culture, and to appreciate our roots. He touches on various cultural practices and norms and delves deep into every corner of our African life. The one constant theme in these pieces is the perspective of unity. In all the pieces with human subjects, there is none that has an individual subject- every part of life was shared.

Unlike his father, Michael Soi takes on a different voice. He is not calm and peaceful but forceful and authoritative. If you have ever met Michael at any gathering, he commands an element of authority with his distinctive white beard, like a lion’s mane, he owns the place and so does he own his craft. Born in 1972, Michael was brought up in the world of art. Many of the 70s kids were brought up looking towards lucrative civil service jobs but Michael had the privilege to be brought up in a home that could steer him into a different world. Driven by his passion for the canvas, he would study painting and Art History at the Creative Art Centre in Nairobi.

The father spoke about the peace and quiet and love fed by the village life. In Ancent, life was good and happy but in Michael, life is a boiling pot of moral decadence, corruption, and manipulation. Michael’s work is a mirror of society. It is a voice of the oppressed and vocal about the issues that very few find the confidence to speak about. Indeed, he has received criticism and praise from many but his defiance keeps him at the top of his game.

Armed with bright colours, Michael’s painting attacks you from its vantage point and calls for your attention like that skimpily dressed lady or that tall well-dressed guy. His subjects are usually bodacious women with pouty multicoloured lips and afro hair. In a conservative society, Michael exposes what many do not want to talk about. He wants a lot of the discussions that we fear addressing to be brought to the table. One can look at his work as one pure misogynistic given the nature of his subjects and how the male subjects ogle around the woman. Nevertheless, it speaks to the urban society’s masculinity veiled with merrymaking yet does not show much respect to the other gender.

The same sharp wit Michael attacks societal norms is mirrored in his national view as he satirizes international relationships through his work. Moses and the Ten Commandments is a scathing critique of China’s one-sided relationship with Africa. In this piece, Michael’s sharp-edged sword is not only targeted at China but also African leadership including the AU who blinded by the promised land of grandeur do not see the rag being pulled under them. The piece puts him at the pinnacle of top satirists like the Late Wahome Mutahi and Katama Mkangi.

Through his art, Michael has garnered recognition both locally with his signature handbags and paintings. He is also a recipient of the Manjano Competition and Exhibition awards in 2011, and the top forty under forty awards in 1999.

Michael’s daughter Malli also features in this exhibition. Born in 2008, Malli is quickly following in the footsteps of her grandfather and father. As a child, Malli would hang around her father’s studio and this saw her engage in collaborative art with her father. From here, she developed a keen sense of observation which opened her to the world of solo paintings.

Malli’s work is a blend of the father and the grandfather in the way she manages to create her subjects. The unique voice she brings out differs from her father’s because of her choice of colour and from her grandfather’s from the way she views society. In this exhibition, Malli appears as a bridge between her father’s urban paintings and her grandfather’s village settings. Moreso, it speaks the language of a child which is innocent and wildly imaginative.

Hopefully, her work would develop into something more immersive and deeply engaging as she grows into her own field.

The exhibition runs from June 24th to July 23rd 2023.

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