Every day, Ali Hassan, 22, stays up late manifesting his creativity on paper. He is a portrait artist who uses pit charcoal or pencil graphite to draw.
“I grew up watching my maternal grandmother draw. She would embellish her gourds and walls with drawings of flowers or symbolic images,” he says, adding that even though this inspired him enough to start sketching while in primary school, he did not consider it ever being his career.
“I wanted to become a movie director because I was fascinated by films and wanted to learn how they were produced. I performed well in school, and was certain that I would join university after secondary school. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Before he sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams in 2013, his mother had a candid chat with him, explaining that she would not manage to pay for his university education because she had to educate his two younger siblings as well.
“It occurred to me then that I might not realise my dream of becoming a movie director. That is when I began to entertain the idea of becoming an artist,” he explains.
The first portrait he drew was of his school principal. He loved it so much, he paid Sh1,000 for it. After completing secondary school, Ali decided to leave his home in Kericho for Nairobi, convinced that the move would offer him more opportunities.
“A friend agreed to host me, and a couple of months later I re-connected with my father and moved in with him,” he says.
Before moving to the city, he envisioned having many clients asking for his services, but as it turned out, they were hard to come by. Not about to give up, but with no money to advertise his work, he decided to paste his work on electricity posts near the United States International University- Africa (USIU-A). He would draw portraits of popular people which he would then stick on the posts.
The marketing strategy worked, but not how he had envisioned it. Instead of getting clients, he got a mentor, Rony Randa, an accomplished portrait artist, who offered to help him refine his skills further.
“For about five months on weekdays, I would go to Kenyatta University where he was based and he would teach me what he knew. He shared his knowledge with me unselfishly. His selflessness would later encourage me to do the same with others. Currently, I have six young people that I am training free.”
To raise bus fare from Kasarani, where he lived with his father, to Kenyatta University along Thika Road, Ali worked as a dishwasher in a hotel along Thika Road on weekends.
He started off his business with Sh2,800, which he used to buy essentials tools of trade such as ivory board papers, pencils and erasers. Today, he draws about five portraits every week. On a good month, he makes about Sh100,000.
“The cost of a portrait depends on the materials I use as well as the size. I draw the portraits in A3 or A2 sizes – the least I charge for each is Sh5,000,” he offers, explaining that he produces his portraits in black and white in celebration of the African people and their culture.
He has produced portraits for high profile individuals including Interior CS, Fred Matiang’i, Kenyan hip hop artist Jua Cali, and Nigerian Afro Pop singer Yemi Alade.
“I am now able to support my mother pay fees for my siblings, one in Form Four, the other in Class Eight. My mother is proud of me,” he says.
He markets his work mostly on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. On Instagram, where he goes by the name yma kenya, he has a following of more than 50K.
“One of the reasons I enjoy what I do is mainly because this does not feel like work, it feels like leisure, and when I get good feedback from my clients, I am elated,” he says.
He adds that even though there is good money in his trade, it is not devoid of challenges. The first has to do with money.
“For instance, there are those who commission me to do their portraits, only to ask me to give them more time to pay when I deliver the work. There are also those who make orders only to advertise my work as their own. This does not give me sleepless nights though, people can steal your work but never your creativity,” he says, explaining that each artist, going by what he has observed from his trainees, has a unique selling point.
“I have found satisfaction in what I do,” Ali, who in 2016 moved from his father’s house into his own rented one, which also acts as his office, says.
“I want to be known as one of Kenya’s best portrait artists – in future, I plan to advance my skills and explore different ways to draw contemporary portraits.