Nancy Cherwon always knew she wanted to be an artist. But what she didn’t know was that she was destined to be an artist whose specialty was graffiti, and that she’d become widely known as simply Chela, short for Chelagat, her Nandi name.
Even at University of Nairobi, Chela started off majoring in Design, specializing in Illustration. But her second year, she ventured out to PAWA254 where her love affair with graffiti art began. It was toward the end of 2013.
“I met Swift [Elegwa] and Uhuru B [Brown] who were both doing graffiti. After that, Uhuru gave a workshop at Kenya National Theatre in graffiti art, and I was hooked after that,” says Chela. Speaking this past week during the opening of the brand new Kukito restaurant on Kimathi Street, Chela explained she had just completed her work painting both the interior and exterior of Kukito the day before. Assisted by several of her students and friends, she had been painting behind a big mabati wall in front of the eatery’s entrance for the preceding week.
They had beautified everything from the mabati wall (“so it wouldn’t be such an eyesore”) to the glass entrance doors, to one entire wall from front to back and both loos, with a prince inside the gents and an elegant princess in the ladies.
“Our main motif was the cock,” says Chela whose majestic rooster wears his bright red flowing comb like a regal crown and his tail flourishes with multicolored feathers painted with a variety of geometric designs. She even made one cock that faced you head-on as you stood at two handy sinks and realized the two oval mirrors were meant to be the cock’s eyes and the soap dispenser part of his beak!
Like a number of young graffiti artists, Chela has been busy painting ever since she made herself known by her graffiti painting. Her first show was at Patrick Mukabi’s Dust Depo Art Studio where she exhibited with a number of other graffiti artists. That led to her taking part in the first “Street Diaries” show at Railway Museum. The Diaries were one of the first major showcases of graffiti artists with each artist painting at least one portion of the long wall that stretch from the main road all the way down to the Museum. Included were a number of established graffiti artists like Swift, Uhuru, Bankslave, Bantu, Kerosh and Eljah.
Chela was one of the few women that took part in that show. It was where she met Dina Simbauni who has been one of her assistants ever since.
“Dina and Saka [Onyango] both helped me with the painting of Kukito,” says Chela who adds Steven Ogallo also lent her a hand so she would meet her deadline.
The graffiti art community is especially collegial, so while it may seem to be a small sector of the wider Kenyan artists community, they often work together on their projects. That was the case when Chela has painted in various sites in Eastlands, such as Jericho, Korogocho and Baba Ndogo where she taught young women from the neighborhood how to paint. But she has also created graffiti murals in Westlands as well as in Kampala and Kigali where she’s been invited to the East African Street Festival.
Chela is also featured in the new 2020 Kenya Arts Diary. But the night of the Diary’s launch at Heinrich Boell Foundation, she was busy running her first ‘Paint and Wine’ event with two other Kenyan artists, Native and Sogallo, at Lava Latte where she’d already created a lovely graffiti mural.