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Meet Kenyan Sculptor behind caricatures of prominent African Leaders

Samwel Otieno at his home in Seme, Kisumu County [Photo: Denish Ochieng]

KENYA: Samuel Otieno became physically challenged at the age of three and never imagined that one day he would be famous. But now, at 48, he is an internet sensation after he moulded caricatures of African heads of state and other prominent Kenyan politicians, effectively chiselling his name in thousands of hearts and setting tongues wagging across the country.

Otieno is a sculptor, a skill he has nurtured since he was only five. He is also a barber based in Seme, Kisumu County. His sculptures of prominent African faces are now the topic of discussion in online platforms. Otieno’s art was first received with negative criticism from social media users who claimed that such art was ridiculing to the heads of state.

Some people were unhappy that the busts he had made of personalities such as ODM leader Raila Odinga and his Wiper counterpart Kalonzo Musyoka bore little resemblance with the real people. Some critics even suggested that he had committed sedition by making “laughable” images of the former prime minister. Now, among his collection are images of President Uhuru Kenyatta, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), John Pombe Magufuli (Tanzania), First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, Raila and Homa Bay Woman Rep Gladys Wanga.

A closer look at Otieno’s art gives a view of an antique shop for long less appreciated and unrecognised even by his neighbours. Sometime back the sculptor, who had graduated from drawing saintly images of the Virgin Mary for his church, had given up the art until a week ago during a talent exhibition organised by the Kisumu County Government at Kit Mikayi.

It was during this event that photos of his art were taken and he got a chance to sell two sculptures of Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o and Seme MP James Nyikal at Sh10,000 each. His journey started when he was three years old after he suffered a bout of polio, which left his right leg and hand paralysed.

At the age of five, Otieno could not go to school, but he started moulding animals using clay soil from their swampy farm. At the age of 10, his parents died. “I started drawing and selling the images on the streets of Kisumu, where many people were attracted to my drawings,” he recalls.

It was during this time that missionary sisters spotted him and offered to train him in drawing. After three months, Otieno was hired to make church-related drawings of the Virgin Mary and drawings at the Catholic Church altars. The father of seven uses clay from Kakamega Forest and embellishes it with paint purchased from local stores. With all the material at hand, he takes one week to complete a single sculpture.

Samwel Otieno at his home in Seme, Kisumu County [Photo: Denish Ochieng]

His wife Millicent Atieno says through art, Otieno has been able to provide for their family. He gets bruised since he uses one hand, but we support him as much as we can,” she says. She is glad that two of their children have shown interest in learning the art. She urges the government to support and nurture young talent.

“We have been able to pay school fees, buy food and purchase school requirements for our children with money raised from selling the two sculptures and other drawings,” Otieno says. His wife says since the art went viral, many well-wishers have reached out, including potential customers, inquiring about his work. “This is a good sign that after all, his patience and persistence will finally bear fruit,” she said.

Read the Original ARTICLE on The Standard.

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