From hawking commercial art in Eldoret to exhibiting in Miami, Houston and Berlin

Peter Achayo shines a spotlight on the journey that Nedia Were has undertaken from painting signs and portraits in a rural Kenya backwater to the international art market.


It’s been a long while since I visited Nedia Were’s studio: our encounters have been sporty in the immediate post-Covid season. That’s about to change as I wait to meet with him at the tony Artcaffe Gastro in the upmarket Westlands District of Nairobi. We are here to meet New York art dealer Aeon Cummings, a former JP Morgan and GE Capital VP now building his art advisory business, focussing on African and Caribbean artists. His 11,000 km flight to see Nedia and Nairobi’s art scene is a testament to the value he places on Nedia and on the undiscovered potential available here.

Nairobi is steadily developing into an important regional arts destination with its growing number of new and emerging artists gaining international acclaim – a list that includes some exciting names such as Beatrice Wanjiku, April Kamunde, Peterson Kamwathi, Onyis Martin, Dickens Otieno, Shabu Mwangi and Boniface Maina.

They join a list of established international household names from Nairobi such as the highly acclaimed Wangechi Mutu, Michael Armitage, Kaloki Nyamai, Syowia Kyambi, Chemu Ng’ok, Thandiwe Muriu and of course the award winning Nedia Were.

Born 35 years ago to a working-class family in Langas Estate in Eldoret, a laid-back rural farming town 300 km north west of Nairobi, Nedia’s mother wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his late father and be a school teacher. She wanted to give her son an easier path with job security: but he would hear none of this, resulting in a bitter falling-out. “The die was cast,” he reflects: all he had was based on a dream and a childhood hobby. 

He had grown up with no TV, toys or amusement parks. Evenings were special for him as he looked forward to his grandfather’s return from work – but he had to endure stiff competition for full attention as the old man first had to attend to reading the Daily Nation from cover to cover. The paper became Nedia’s library. He remembers stories of people suffering; and the comics that brought him joy and captured his imagination. 

With pencil and paper he took to copying the comics; and thus his dream to be an artist was born. Thus after the falling-out he set out to prove to his mother and his family that he had a better plan. He set up a roadside freelance sign-writing business: “Dickson Signs”. Making a decent living from this was tough: he charged $0.5 per word and closed most days with less than $5.

Good fortune came when friends requested him to paint their portraits. To his delight he could make as much as $5 for a 30 cm square portrait – which, in his naivety, he painted on wood with the same emulsion paint used on walls. He moved on to the tourist art business with repetitive and generic portraits of Masai people. 

In 2015, confident that he could pivot from a commercial sign writer to a fine artist, he packed his bags and headed to Nairobi. There he met Patrick “Panye” Mukabi, who took him as his mentee at the famous Dust Depo Artists Collective. He changed his “pen name” from Dickson Were to Nedia Were to signify his transition. Later in the year he had his debut exhibitions at the exclusive and affluent Karen Country Club.

Just two years later Lady Luck smiled on him as he won the respected Manjano Art Prize on his first attempt. This resulted in more exhibitions – and one of the pieces was sold at auction in the secondary market to benefit the McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi.

In 2021 the doors to international art markets opened when the Mitochondria Gallery in Houston included him in a group exhibition titled “The Line Between” together with Lagosian painter Mamus Esiebo.

Causing a stir with paint

As Nedia developed his artistic voice he sought not just to show empathy with victims but to find subtle ways of challenging the perpetrators of social and political disenfranchisement – and, by extension, challenging representations of black bodies in media and advertising. 

Nedia’s Mumwamu series caused quite a stir. The title of this series of mixed-media figurative paintings and portraits is “black bodies” or “black person” in his local Tiriki dialect. It bears two hallmarks of his new visual vocabulary: his distinctive use of pitch-black colour on the faces and skin of his subjects; and his references to newsprint – an ode to his grandfather.

Seeing how powerful black faces and skin look on completion presented some soul-searching questions as to why some people go to great lengths to alter their true visual identity by skin bleaching. He took on a mission to restore people’s pride in their colour and identity and counter the dehumanisation of those with black skin – especially the deep black commonly found in the Nile and Lake Victoria region. 

In doing so he was also taking on the teaching of art schools that black pigment cannot be applied directly from the palette when painting skin tones; the artist should create the black hue by mixing colours, resulting in a more toned-down and subtle hue. He felt he had to “redeem” the black pigment from the “pigeon hole” to which it had been consigned.

His subjects thus have a visually dramatic appearance. They are always in sitting or resting poses, with a strong focused gaze from contrasting white eyes, draped in a flowery garment or lively colourful background foliage.

International acclaim

After his Mumwamu received instant acclaim, Nedia has gone on to develop an expansive oeuvre of work that has been exhibited in over 30 shows – from Miami with the Ross-Sutton Gallery and Cape Town with the Eclectica Gallery to art fairs such as Frieze, the Joburg Art Fair, the Investec Art Fair and the Florence Biennale last autumn.

One of his proudest moments was in March 2022 when his portrait of a young lady Barua Si Yangu (“the letter is not mine”) sold for £22,500 at the prestigious Sotheby’s auction house in London. Many of his works have found their way to the secondary market where, according to Sotheby’s, his average auction price is about £12,000.

According to, Nedia was the second-most-tracked emerging artist from Africa on their platform in 2022 with gallery prices ranging from $7,000 to $15,000. His journey, built on childhood dreams, personal muses, social circumstances and dogged self-determination has seen his dream hoist him from a backwater existence to a coveted place in the art world, challenging established art standards and defying stereotypes to champion identity and political discourse.

The acquisition of his Untitled work by the New Museum in Berlin from his 2022 “Fragments of Perceptions” solo exhibition in Houston was a major milestone. It was followed by him earning a coveted placement in the hallowed company of Amoako Boafo, Zanele Muholi, Rufai Zakaria, Yinka Shonibare, Sungi Mlengeya and Romuald Hazzoume in the landmark exhibition “4000+ Years of African Art” at the Wall House Museum on the island of St.Barts.

The logic of Aeon’s wager on this rising artist begins to make sense. It may perhaps make a lot of dollar cents for him.

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Peter Achayo

Peter Achayo is founder and publisher of WhatsArtNBO Journal and AfricanArtMatters. Contact: [email protected]