In a corner of a slum in the middle of Nairobi there was a tiny neighborhood in which most of the storefronts were painted by Frederick Kennedy Okello. The stores were shacks made of corrugated steel and scrap wood. Sometimes they had goods, sometimes not. Some were just mud and sticks. But. They were all bright colors.
Most of them were covered in writing, and some had beautiful paintings on them. They were all painted by hand, by Kennedy. One building was painted blue, with a giraffe on it. Another had a purple wall with three human faces. There was a depiction of animals boarding the Ark. There was a primary school with paintings of airplanes.
Kennedy’s paint was intended to color cars and buses. This was the only affordable paint. Once in a while he had to come back and redo his work because it wore over time if the materials or the surfaces were not good.
When Kennedy was small, he was given a pen and a piece of paper, and he drew his mother cooking, his father, his brothers, and sisters. He left school when he was still a child. The first time he painted on a storefront, he was 16. He was scared, but he felt he was right to be. He had never even painted before, so it was correct to be afraid.
His colors were always bright. Dull colors did not attract attention. He carried many varieties of colors with him. If the owners of the shacks did not know which color to choose, Kennedy advised them.
Kennedy believed that accuracy was the most important thing in painting signs and storefronts. Accuracy meant that a thing looked as much like itself as possible. A painting of a pig would be as pig-like as possible. Accuracy told the story of a thing. All of the world’s things had stories. Even a pig. Even a screw.
His own home did not have anything special painted on it. It was just blue and clear like the sky. His roof was made of steel, and there were small holes in it. Inside, there were no lights except for the light that came through these holes.
Kennedy kept an envelope with Polaroids of all the paintings he had done. Buildings, signs, and doors. When it rained, sometimes the buildings fell apart. Sometimes there were fires or buildings would simply collapse. There would be violence, and the storefronts would be erased. For this reason, Kennedy stored his paintings in this envelope. One could walk through the neighborhood and find it bright, with writing everywhere, and artwork everywhere, and prayers written over doorways, or one could look in the envelope, which might outlive the buildings, if only for a little while.