Though she was at the high-performing Alliance Girls High School in Kikuyu, depression resulting from family differences pushed Esther Zibbiah Samba to the precipice of suicide. Without meaning to, she found herself scrawling on paper with a pencil. She suddenly burst into laughter when she saw what was on the paper, her friend’s bare legs. Her life was spared for another day. She speaks to BOBASTLES OWINO NONDI. “This brought optimism in my life but due to my fear of rejection I never showed the painting to my friend although I would look at it for a long time whenever I was low in spirit. It is from these moments that I realised art has a therapeutic value,” Samba tells ArtMatters.Info.
“I developed special passion for drawing and painting, but I always kept my work to myself for fear of criticism or rejection. It is the same fear that intimidated me into confining my works to people very close to me till now, four years after I did my first painting, that I am daring to share it with the world.”
Like her introduction to art, Samba’s coming to light also seems to be by default. She had heard of Kuona Trust, an establishment that promotes contemporary art in East Africa through international exchange, workshops, residency programmes and exhibitions.
She settled on the internet search engines in order to get details about Kuona. “It is while browsing online that, through ArtMatters.Info, I was directed to your offices,” she announces, sure that she is at Kuona Trust.
“I wanted Kuona to help me exhibit my work and also give me publicity to enable me reach out to customers. Art has worked for me in easing out my stress thereby empowering me. I see things differently after looking at a portrait, painting, picture or any artistic work. I want to share the same with a greater audience as a way of contributing to the society. It is only when a people understand art in a particular context that they will appreciate it to the level of buying,” says an excited Samba.
Exuding seemingly permanent broad smiles, Samba says, “I am regarded in many cases as crazy, just by the way I dress, talk, walk and do many other things. Today I might look like a conformist but no, I do things differently from many people.” But must artists look different?
“For me it is not a question of being an artist. I just don’t like the way Kenyans like copying others, always looking alike, going out to the same places, going by the same fashion fads and all that. It gives the impression that you cannot think on your own, that you must wait for others to set the agenda for you,” says Samba, retrieving a small oil on canvas artwork done in wavy shades of blue she calls ‘Blues Music’, from a bag.
And her works are arguably different, too. Instead of going for abstract forms of painting that often take forever to be understood or that would require the creator to explain, her works are simple, in the form of portraits and semi-abstract styles. This, she says, is to give the people an easy time to identify with and appreciate her works. Acknowledging that unlike white expatriates who appreciate art for the sake of art, most black people in Kenya may buy art as a requirement of interior design, often impressed upon them by interior designers. This, nonetheless, creates a market for artists.
“Nowadays you find various types of artistic works on walls of virtually every home. This is the type of market that should be harnessed,” says Samba. Samba says she draws inspiration from music, driven by the desire to empower women. She sketches and paints historical figures and waves of mellow music as a way of connecting with and empowering women.
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“I love music but cannot sing so I end up painting my feelings for certain music forms or about music generally. Take the violin, for example. It produces heavenly music but I cannot play it so I draw a small girl playing it to communicate my attachment to what comes out of that instrument,” she says.
Esther Samba with her music-inspired painting. Some of Samba’s pencil works include Cleopatra of ancient Egypt, variedly described as a ravishing beauty, hero, villain, and ruthless destroyer of men whose exotic image affected the styles on ancient Rome. Samba has also drawn Queen Boudicca, a warrior queen of Britain who fought the Romans and refused to give up even after being defeated; she committed suicide in AD62.
Samba says she brings “legendary female figures to life on canvas or paper as a way of inspiring women with the knowledge that there are no limits to one’s capabilities and opportunities, irrespective of gender. Saying she would like her artworks to sell Samba laments that, most artworks that sell are those that target tourists. I am not going for that kind of stuff. If you like my work it should not be because it portrays Africans in a certain light, but because it addresses Africa’s situation realistically.”
Born in Taita in 1988, Samba, second born in a family of three, sees her family as that of artists and explorers. She remembers her mother, an employee with National Water Corporation, going for fashion design and tailoring classes to hone her natural creative skills, from where she did designs for herself and friends, but could not practise full time because of employment.
“While my little brother draws and paints, my father has put aside his engineering profession to run the church ministry he founded,” says the girl who attended pre-school at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Mombasa, and passed through several primary schools before doing Kenya Certificate of Primary Education at Weru Academy in Embu, Eastern Province. She then joined Alliance Girls High School where she sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2005.
Any one who passes through schools like Alliance is expected to go for professions like engineering, law, architecture, or commerce but never the liberal arts or social sciences. But Samba is going against the grain as she is set to study sociology and economics. “I want to study something that will usher me into a job market where I will work with people directly, helping solve their social problems,” she explains.
After graduation Samba plans to launch an arts organisation where up-and-coming artists would be given a platform to work and showcase their works. She also harbours the dream of founding a Non-Governmental Organisation to alleviate human suffering.