String illustrator Yona Mudibo out to change the scene

Friday January 10 2020
Fela Kuti

A portrait of Fela Kuti created by Yona Mudibo using string and nails was bought by an art collector in Norway. PHOTO | COURTESY


All Yona Mudibo needs to make a masterpiece with some yarn and nails. When inspiration strikes, he creates incredible, photorealistic portraits by meticulously coiling thread around the nails.


It is worth pointing out that he uses a single strand of unbroken string for each portrait.

The Mombasa-based artist mainly works from Studio Bela Bela in Bamburi, Mombasa, and has exhibited at Alliance Fraincaise in Mombasa and National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.

Although string art is mainly utilised for artistic DIY projects, in the right creative hands, thread, cord and yarn can be used to create incredible masterpieces for mainstream art.

Today, contemporary artists are revisiting the use of the string as an art form, resulting in captivating, three-dimensional art.


When Yona started string art in 2019, he had no idea that it would attract praises and a purchase.

“I just decided to look for something unique other than the pencil and oil painting. I had taught some string art to kids as a DIY. I realised I could make it more appealing so that people are amazed by it,” he said in an interview.


His first portrait of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and human rights activist, sold to an art collector in Norway.

The portrait was about 4x4 feet, where more than 1,500 nails were used along with hammer and uncut thread.

“I settled on Fela Kuti because he is an artist I admire a lot in terms of his music and philosophy. I used him as a subject just to sensitise people on what he is known for,” he said.

He makes a sketch of the model and then transfers it to a bigger paper before it is placed on the plywood.

“The Fela Kuti portrait took me two months, working at night between 10pm to 4am. You have to concentrate because once you start at a certain point you cannot stop until you are done with it. If you stop you might lose the tension that you have on the string, “he said.


But as his profile grows, the inspiration behind his work remains the same.

He wants to bring alive the spirit of legends who championed freedom and human rights using art and music.

“I feel my art is different, I think because when I make art, it is for a special reason. It is not just the technique but the story behind the painting. I do not want to use string art just as a new technique but also use it as an avenue to put word out there on the various things that the legendary artists and musicians have been trying to preach out to people, “he said.

He hopes his pieces will one day make it to museums in London and New York.

“String art is not so popular in Kenya but people are usually amazed. From far they were not intrigued because it looks like a pencil drawing but when they move closer they are shocked by how the strings mesh up together to form a portrait.”

He is currently stringing Nina Simone, an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist.


Yona, however, wishes to see more activity in the art industry in Mombasa

“The art scene in Mombasa is still slow when you compare it to Nairobi, because right now in Mombasa there is no gallery or no organised institution apart from Alliance Fraincaise for artists to showcase their works,” he says.​