Graffiti in Heaven – Hanging Out With Kenyan Street Artist, Wise Two
A hang out with Wise Two as he prepares for his first solo exhibition in Kenya.
Bhupi Jethwa, better known by his artistic pseudonym Wise Two, has travelled the world, painting. At a young age, he fell in love with his brush and aerosol paint. And lucky for him, the love got requited. He’s been to the ends of the world and back; painting murals in Australia, France, Tunisia, Malaysia, Singapore, Rwanda, USA, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa.
He’s the kind of guy who’ll make you stop to stare at walls, not because you’ve lost your mind, but because of the hypnotic magic he’s left on them. Millions have marveled at his colourfully regal murals, from the western outskirts of French capital Paris to the vibrant streets of inner city New York. I, personally, have been dumbstruck by his hieroglyphic mural that tattoos the facade of the Ibis Styles Hotel in Nairobi’s Westlands district – the biggest one of its kind in East and Central Africa.
He has been featured on and recognized by the United Nations, CNN and Rolling Stone magazine.
Now, after years of globetrotting, this gifted street artist finally traces his way back home, putting up his first ever solo exhibition in Kenya. And there’s no place you’d rather be, starting today, September 26th, than at the Circle Art Gallery, where his aptly named exhibition, Time Travel, will open.
Over a couple days leading up to the exhibition, I got to hang out with the sociable and wildly talented Wise Two in leafy Lavington, home of the Circle Art Agency, as he prepared for the upcoming solo exhibition.
The concept behind it is time travel – Wise Two
I pull out my phone from my pocket and dial his number. He’s been expecting my call; I guess that’s the reason he picks up after only two beeps.
“Brian, hey. What’s up?” He’s fluent and quick.
“Hey, I’m at Circle Art Agency, just arrived.”
“That’s great. Come to the gallery.”
The gallery takes away my breath. I stop on my tracks and turn my head to take in the magnificence, my backpack slung on my right shoulder. Everything is sparkling white: the walls, the floor, the doors. As though that doesn’t cut the picture well, little florescent tubes illuminate the entire place white – it’s like I walked onto the set of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies video. If you aren’t keen enough, you’ll miss seeing the corners. Then you’ll miss out on the joke: What did wall A say to wall B? Meet me at the corner!
Teddy, my accompanying photographer, seems to have a traffic of words stuck in his tongue. Finally, when his neck swivels to let his eyes register the new blinding-white environment; he marvels, “I’ve never been to a place this white!”
He guffaws and then adds, “We just took an Uber to heaven!”
We are stifling laughter when Wise Two, the universally-acclaimed street and studio-based artist, steps into the artsy nirvana that we’ll be spending most of our next 48 hours. He is in a dark grey t-shirt; dried drops of paint splattered on it, a brown pair of khakis with side pockets, and puma kickers with splotches of different colours of paint. A mask dangles on his chest, hanging from around his neck. He approaches us full of verve and stretches out a hand.
“Brian, right? Welcome.”
“Yeah. And you must be Wise Two,” I say, taking his hand.
“I believe that’s right,” he smiles.
“Meet Teddy, our photographer.”
As the two shake hands, I notice a writing on the side of his wrist. The writing is visible and he lets me take a closer look. It reads: Knowledge of Self. He strikes me as a friendly guy. Within three minutes of meeting him, I already feel comfortable; like I’ve known him for ages.
“Feel free,” he says. “Oh, you can put your bags over there.”
One of his friends joins us at the gallery.
“Meet Brian and Teddy,” he introduces. “They’re my friends from KenyaBuzz.” Him introducing a couple of journalists that he just met as “my friends” speaks to his natural conviviality.
Soon we’ve set our bags down and Teddy starts to assemble his equipment.
“So Brian, I have to quickly get to work,” he explains, a hand pointing at one of the walls. “You can watch and feel free to ask anything while at it. We’ll have a chat in-between.”
For me, it’s going to be a privilege to spend time with this artist who has created vast awareness of the Kenyan graffiti art movement amongst the global graffiti community, through his involvements in various international exhibitions and events. In February 2013, together with Brooklyn-based muralist and educator, Joel Bergner and other Kenyan graffiti artists, he painted a train which was dubbed ‘Kibera Peace Train’. This was before the 2013 general elections. It got featured in media outlets including CNN and Aljazeera.
Five minutes later I’m watching as he stands in front of a blank wall, eyes fastened on it. He lifts the mask over his nose, plugs in white earphones, shakes the spray can he has wrapped in his palm and then spritzes a vertical line at the center of the wall. It’s an elegant ritual to observe. I can’t imagine it changes much every time he begins a new painting.
Clicks from Teddy’s Canon camera echo from the back of the room. On both ends of the wall, Wise Two makes five dots, all aligned horizontally. Let the game begin!
“I’m wondering what you carry in your mind,” I holler, stepping closer. He realizes I’m saying something, unplugs the right earpiece.
“You’re saying something?”
I echo my question again, to which he chuckles and responds, “Just wait and see what we have when I’m done. The concept behind it is time travel.”
For the next 20 minutes, I watch with awe as he makes sketches with the spray. An open A-4 drawing book rests at his feet, on it is a sketch he did by hand. Once in a while he shakes his head in rhythm with the music pumping into his eardrums. I admire his stance; standing at ease, his left hand dropped to his side and the right one clutching on the spray can. It’s like a rap artist holding a microphone, sending the crowd on a frenzy. Only, there’s no audience in front of him, but a wall – and two enthralled minds behind him, fixated.
Occasionally, he takes a couple of steps backwards as if to investigate the progress. He delves deep into thought, nods to himself, and then gets back to spraying magic on the wall.
On the other side of the gallery entry, a corridor stretches to your left. A man walks along it and through the door. He carries with him a folding metallic ladder which he sets up next to Wise Two.
The clock ticks away, Teddy’s Canon clicks away. At one moment Wise Two is on the ladder, the next he’s on the floor squatting. He paces up and down checking the progress, once in a while pulling off the mask and then pulling it over his nose again. In no time, the left side of the wall has taken shape. On it are these masterfully done sky-blue sketches.
He steps back and says to me, “Now I have to duplicate that on the right side. It’s tricky, but I’ve got this bro.” He says it with the kind of confidence that only a seasoned artist, who is comfortable with his own skills, can muster.
I ask him about the music he’s listening to, whether it’s instrumental. I tell him about a book I once read that explains how artists use instrumentals to heighten concentration. “Instrumentals? No. That’s them,” he disputes. “I’m just listening to different music, no specifics. Like right now Self Made by Jericho Jackson is playing.”
I’ll be displaying 11 canvases, plus a mural during the exhibition – Wise Two
Wise Two is soon joined by another painter, and now that he’s done with the sketch, they pick the brushes. We are soon joined by a couple of filmmakers who are interested in capturing footage as Wise Two’s brush dances back and forth on the wall. The intention is to create a documentary out of it.
It’s just the first day of painting a mural which he says will take three days, and the progress is already out of this world. I can’t afford to miss his solo exhibition to see the final outcome. You can’t too, heaven awaits you. When I ask him why three days, he says he wants to concentrate on the details. I admire his patience to masterfully bring out detail in his work; I quietly promise myself to transfer that wisdom to my storytelling skills.
Our stomachs soon rumble, a reminder that we need something to bite. He makes a call and orders food, not just for him, but for me too! Evidence that he doesn’t just call people bro, he backs it with action. Our meals arrive in 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, he takes off his mask and drops it on the floor, and then leads me through the corridor to show me around. The gallery walls have works hanged at intervals, giving you a 10-seconds walk in between them. I follow him to a door on the right, which he nudges open for us to step through.
“You did this?!” My voice comes out with utter amazement. I puff, spell-bound by the canvas paintings ahead of me.
“Yes,” he says sheepishly. “11 canvases, all given a different style. I’ll be displaying them, plus the mural during the exhibition.”
In my entire life, I’ve never seen such scrupulously done paintings; a mélange of black, green, yellow, white – all melded magically to depict what looks like an ancient mask, a set of eyes artistically piercing into my eyeballs from the canvas.
It’s the kind of painting which when you have up on your wall, automatically becomes fodder for conversation when you have friends over for dinner. You put up one of these on your walls and you become an instant hit for your eclectic taste.
Ancient cultures inspire me – Wise Two
Later, after we put forks and knives on plates packed with French fries and deep-fried chicken, we get a chance to bond more. This time, I want to know a little about his background and what he studied in university. We’ve gone out through a sort of secret door on one of the white walls, getting access to an open outdoor space with tables and chairs. There’s plenty of space covered by manicured lawns and a motley of flowers. It’s the kind of environment to get into a deep conversation.
“I studied International Relations with a concentration in Peace and Conflict studies at the United States International University-Africa. I never practiced though. I figured painting was my thing. I’ve never turned back.”
“How long have you been painting?”
“Hard to tell, but I can tell you it’s long. Over 10 years, in different styles.”
“And what inspires you?” I shoot.
“Food,” he exclaims, pointing to the aftermath on the round table furnished to sparkles. We laugh, heads leaning to the plates smeared with sauce, and chicken bones leaving a trail to what our stomachs are digesting.
“Okay I’m kidding,” he says as my laughter dwindles to little nose laughs.
“Ancient cultures inspire me. Rhythms, codes, hieroglyphs, symbology, as well as mystical and ritual objects of a deep and powerful continent; Africa.”
I pry to see if he has any other interests away from art. And he has to think about it. “That’s a tough one. Well, travelling, although it comes with the job.” After two beats, he confesses, “I used to have other hobbies, but when bills came I had to focus on painting. I threw other hobbies out the window.”
We do not have much time, as he has to get back to work. I ask two last questions; one on whether he has a favourite painting of his, and of course, what he has to say to a young artist interested in graffiti: “I don’t let myself have a favourite one. You let that happen and you become comfortable. I want to keep growing forever, and so my next one has to be better than the one before it. There’s no falling in love in my line of work.” And to upcoming graffiti artists, the irrefutable pioneer of Kenyan street art first jokes, “Go be an accountant!” We laugh it off together as rises on his feet to head back into the gallery, before he advises, “There’s no particular formula. Keep exploring, keep learning, keep painting and never quit.”
When he gets back to the gallery, he picks up his mask and brush. Once more, he lifts the mask over his nose, plugs in his white earphones, shakes the spray can and gets back to work. Once more, I derive a niche pleasure from watching this ritual. I walk away with a deep longing to see the final art piece – which won’t be until the exhibition opens.
Wise Two will be holding his first ever solo exhibition in Africa, starting today, September 26th at Circle Art Gallery, on 910 James Gichuru Road, in Lavington, Nairobi. Opening night 6p.m. until 10p.m. The exhibition will run until October 16th.