Onyis Martin

Multi-award-winning artist, Onyis Martin was born in Kisumu, Kenya in 1987 and moved to Nairobi when he was six. Growing up, aside from school he kept himself out of trouble by playing football and doing art. When he graduated from high school, he rejected his father’s wish that he go to university and instead launched full time into fine art, which he initially developed through apprenticeships at the Godown Arts Centre and Kuona Trust in Nairobi. He is now based out of the Kobo Trust, where along with other artists, he mentors and facilitates aspiring artists with opportunities to develop their talent.
Experimenting with a wide range of materials, Martin explores the human condition and the global geo-political interface, specifically through issues surrounding human trafficking, migration, corruption and displacement. Additionally, he explores matters surrounding communication, the rapidly changing technological environment and the consumerism that surrounds it. Using his personal experience as a point of departure, he interweaves individual and collective experiences highlighting the varying yet similar experiences people have in different places globally. In his most recent group of works, Talking Walls (2016), Martin extended his exploration of how information depends on and is influenced by freedom and social structure towards investigating the rise of consumerism.

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You live and work in Nairobi. How does this city inspire you, as an artist?
Nairobi is a metropolitan city, everybody tries to find his/her place. It is similar to any other capital. Industrial and complex, where everybody comes to find some work or to study. Most of the people are not from here. Everybody is a stranger here.
It is a symbol of dreams coming true and hope for the people traveling here. However, I’m not sure that all of those dreams eventually come true.
I mainly work at Kobo Trust, an artist-run space where I share techniques and experiences with 7 other young artists. It’s an open studio for different kinds of artists, working with different mediums. We work together and we support each other, opening our minds and creating a synergy in creation.

Who are the men you represent in your works?
I draw men because I try to represent myself as a man trying to survive in a white background. That’s why my backgrounds are all white.
So by deleting the background, I represent a man trying to find his way in a place he doesn’t recognize.
As I am a man, I can only talk well about men and I want to speak the truth about the feelings of the people I represent.
I focus on representing movement in humans body both mental and physical. Sometimes you can think there are several people in one piece, but it’s the same person! They are multiple facets of the same man. His personalities meet on the paper.

Why are you mainly working with ink?
My works are also the meeting of two components which are: ink and water. Creating something in unity and osmosis is the all point of my plastic work. The conflict between ink and water, on paper, is similar to the society's issues I represent. While water struggles to shade ink, the men I represent struggle to find their place. The medium is completely linked to the subject.
I am also using ink as a medium that has been used in very official papers and situations as passports or banknotes printing. Indeed, we differentiate two main types of ink which are the classical ones as water-ink or printing ink and « special inks » as security inks which are used for high-secured documents. Among them, thermochromic ink and « bleeding » ink, used for passports and surgical packages.

How do you technically manage to draw your characters?
I draw on flat plans, as tables or floors. Ink only settles where the paper is wet, so as my papers are dry, it follows the lines I draw. Basically, the drying process sticks to the drawing and saves the very shape of the figures. I don’t use stencils!
About the ink shades concentration, I focus on men's body parts that are the most contested as head, hands, private area, and the legs. When I introduce ink on these places it flows to the rest of the body but it remains concentrated on those areas.