PAWA 254 was a hub established more than a year ago to be the go-to place for artistes in need of inspiration and to create a platform where creatives could use their talents to bring social change.
And the place is striving to live-up to that expectation, as we confirmed during a visit early this week. From the interior décor to pink and purple furniture and the room designs, convention is thrown out of the window and creativity let lose.
Emblazoned on the red, light green and dark walls are graffiti of social rebels, heroes and heroines of past and present struggles. Wangari Maathai, Malcom X, Tom Mboya are
artistically embedded on the walls with their famous quotes to symbolize PAWA 254’s quest to make artists a formidable force in social struggle.
“As a young and upcoming photojournalist I had no mentor and I had to do everything on my own which was very obstructive to my career growth,” explains PAWA 254 founder Boniface Mwangi. “I vowed that one day I will start a hub where artists and photographers can meet and mentor and inspire each other”.
The renowned photojournalist and activist talked to us from a niche in the hub that he calls office, where the walls are sprayed with defiant graffiti like “Revolution Now”, “We are not Afraid” and other artistic depictions of his struggles for social justice.
Mwangi confesses that most of the unconventional methods of protest that Kenyans have witnessed in the recent past like the use of more than 200 coffins, pigs and vulture graffiti in the city center are hatched at PAWA 254.
“PAWA is the word power artistically corrupted and 254 is Kenya’s country code,” Mwangi explains the unique name. “This alongside the motto “Arts Rising” was designed to capture the centers theme which is to use the creative elements to bring social, political and economic change in society”.
Even the various places across the hub are suggestive of a highly political artistic community. Mageuzi Space is the hall where functions are conducted while Ubuntu Room is the area that holds the workstations.
PAWA Roof or Ideas Garage is the converted roof top where artists can relax, play pool, work in the work shop or just breathe in the fresh air that is in abundant around this State House neighbourhood.
The Switch, a gospel program aired by K24 television, is beamed live every Sunday from the PAWA Roof.
Even the tanks are not spared by the artist’s brush for they are adorned by larger-than-life portrait paintings of Burkina Faso revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara.
“PAWA 254 is quiet an experience for artists because since I started coming here I have met creative people from different fields like film makers and programmers,” explains Swift, a graffiti artists. “This have not only improved my perception as an artist but have also widened contact base which a good thing for an artist”.
Besides providing an ideal workplace, the hub also organizes various interactive platforms where professionals from the creative sector conduct talks and seminars. Various activities are assigned to each day of the week.
“I like the place because it gives our show the touch for a raw setting and makes it stand above other gospel productions in Kenya,” explains DJ Soxxy, one of the presenters for The Switch. “We need more places like this to give artist an opportunity to interact and work in a conducive environment”.
Tuesdays evenings are marked for PAWA Debates where prominent people are invited to give talks about issues affecting the creative industry. This is meant to not only engage with the audience but also horn participants’ public speaking skills and make them better leaders in their respective areas of expertise.
“This is meant to create leaders because at PAWA 254 we believe art is supposed to be geared towards bringing about tangible change social change,” explains Mwangi. “It’s important to be articulate in what you do since you can earn a living by giving talks about it”.
The two-time CNN Photojournalist of the Year says that he travels to at least six countries every year to give talks on photography and social activism from which he gets paid. This has made inspired him to inculcate speaking events at PAWA 254 where artists have a chance to horn their communication skills.
“Last year I won Prince Claus Award which came along with Sh2.5 million from which I bought a family car and the rest I dedicated to the development of PAWA 254,” Mwangi says. “Sometimes I turn down talk invitations abroad because I am overwhelmed by my various engagements in Kenya”.
He says he used part of the money to buy a family car while the rest went to fund the activities of PAWA 254.
The hub has a trophy board where the 29 year-old photojournalist’s numerous awards are displayed alongside those of other artistes that have been part of PAWA 254 like renowned gospel rapper Juliani.
Boniface Mwangi claims that he sold both his car and his wife’s to raise money for the setting up of the non-profit making art center in 2011. Thanks to this generous gesture poets, painters, web designers, rappers, writers, singers and any other Tom, Dick and Harry in the creative industry have a hangout where they congregate in various days of the week for bonding sessions.
“On Thursdays PAWA 254 always hold PAWA Salon, a three-hour session in the evenings where we invite a professional from the creative field who takes the audience through the nitty-gritty of their line,” explains PAWA 254 manager Kevin Oyugi. “The speaker could be an artist, photographer, painter, poet, writer or any other creative professional”.
Fridays PAWA 254 always has what they call Open House where artists meet from eleven to five. Visitors on this day are at liberty to engage in any constructive activity of their choice and to use the facilities of the center like WiFi and studio rooms for free.
“This is one of the most popular sessions because the artistes have an opportunity to meet with their peers, interact and exchange ideas,” Oyugi explains. “There are also performances at the Mageuzi Space while those that are willing can use the PAWA Rooftop parlour or the fine art studio”.
Besides the usual activities of the week the center also organizes workshops, trainings and partnerships in conjunction with organizations that supports art, all in a bid to ensure talent is exposed and nurtured.
For instance a few weeks ago PAWA 254 partnered with British Council to conduct a training dubbed Culture Shift which brought together creative people from the art and technology world.
“Just like artistes, techies are creative people hence there is a need to bring the two together in order for them to connect and see how they can explore each other’s unique abilities,” the center’s manager said. “This being a digital age it’s important to expose artistes to technology in order to enable them explore the potential that platforms like internet presents”.
After the workshop, the techies and artistes are supposed to collaborate on a single project, with the winning team bagging 5000 pounds which they will use to implement their idea.
Besides partnerships, PAWA 254 also develops in-house competitions meant to inspire creativity and keep artistes coming to the hub. One of them is Cypher, a competition whose performances were broadcast live by a Google hangout.
During the time of the week when there are no activities, the art hub acts as a workplace for PAWA 254 project managers working on various projects like photo exhibitions, poetry workshops and citizen journalism training.
But this is not like any other workplace since staff has access to DSTV, a kitchen, a rooftop relaxation parlour and cool music playing on the background and a chilling space that doubles up as a prayer spot for Muslims.
“We try to provide an environment that inspires creativity and concentration so that artistes can bring the best out of their potential,” Kevin says. “We also have membership structure where individuals or groups pay a monthly fee of Sh10,000 which gives them access to the office space, WiFi and other facilities”.
He says the money generated goes to funding of events and other expenses incurred in the running of PAWA 254.