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In Fact, Creative Painters Have Turned Kenya
Vehicle Art Into A Very Sophisticated Industry

Coastweek -- Having gone round the matatu tribes in Kenya I thought we should perhaps conclude by considering what this whole thing about matatu art is and where it fits into the wider world of art – and yes it does, writes TETI KAMUGUNDA.

The art styles seen on matatus borrow from the different types of art movements such as impressionist, post-impressionist, cubist, fauvist, expressionist, Dadaist, surrealist and pop.

This suggest that those who are in the business of pimping matatus are not the street artists that we used to know as the faces behind the looks of the vehicles.

The people behind the matatu art are now a mix of graduates of art school as well as seasoned street artists whose reputations have grown as their skill and fame has spread. You have the go-to guys who are now reputed to be able to create any look or feel that one desires.

What is becoming apparent is that some of the forms of art seen on matatus are an extension of the traditional art forms and globally there could be a new extensions breeding.

However, the most prominent form expression in the matatu art industry in Kenya is graphic art. It is also can also be found in other parts of the world from jeepneys in the Philippines, jingle trucks on the Indian sub-continent to chiva chicken buses and trucks in South America.

Graphic art is a type of visual expression that is defined by line and tone or “disegno” rather than colour alone or “colorito”. This includes animation, calligraphy, comic, caricature, cartoons as well as post-modernist styles such as word art which is text based graphics.

Looking in general at vehicle art globally they are all very strongly regional in character. We will look at the development of matatu art in one sub region.

When one looks at the jingle trucks on the Indian sub-continent, one finds that there is still a very strong religious slant to the forms of art on the buses and trucks.

Vehicle art there started from drivers painting the portraits of their religious gurus and saints in the early years of the second world war.

This was thought to invite protection to their vehicles especially in the times of war.

Competition soon set in and the colours became more vivid and loud.

Differentiation also set in and drivers wanted their trucks to look different by adding other features on the truck art alongside the religious portraits.

They started adding animals, landscapes, birds and other more mundane elements to the art on their trucks.

As time went on the artists decided to add other more topical things and the first and most obvious one was to go political.

As in many other areas the first item to appear on the vehicle decoration art was the picture of the ruler of the country.

This followed on the requirement that one must hang a portrait of the president or prime minister in a prominent place in an office or place of employment.

For the vehicle owner, the obvious place to hang a portrait of any size or form was to have it hanging from the stem of the rear view mirror.

This was not only ungainly but also could disturb the driver’s concentration.

The next most obvious place was to paint the picture on the body of the vehicle. 

This was soon followed by also painting a presentation of some of the projects and success of the leader especially in the parts of the country where the leader was popular and more so the region that elected the leader.

The next thing that influenced vehicle art was popular themes emerging socially.

Films and film stars as well as musicians both local and international became the next focus.

People like Bruce Lee and the martial art of kung fu became global fodder for art images on vehicles.

Included were music icons such as Elvis Presley and James Brown that also featured prominently on vehicle art.

In the local arena, the likes of Luambo Makiadi or Franco and Tabu Ley were the favourite additions on the matatu art.

From painting of vehicles, the art form started to incorporate additional decorative hardware such as modified bumpers, chrome hubs, multiple aerials, satellite dishes and anything else that could be stuck on to add appeal or differentiate a vehicle.

In fact, vehicle art has become a very sophisticated industry where exhibitions are now held in some parts of the world to showcase what types of developments are taking place in this art form.

This has not yet started as a formal activity in Kenya or Eastern Africa but I am sure it will be happening very soon.

The birth pangs of this type of exhibition is the regular display of very well decorated vehicles in prominent places in city streets where the vehicle is parked for display rather than service.

AS this becomes more popular I am sure the likelihood of an exhibition of motoring madness will quickly follow.

We already have some of the motor manufacturers displaying some of the gaudier matatu creations on their stand to attract people to buy the matatus but that is only a token use of the form of art.

The matatu industry will soon respond.

As Kachumbari says, the matatu will soon become the official mobile art gallery!




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