This is bigger than me! This is God.Bella Owiti
“Hello, I’m Bella!” Said the confident, petite artist, as she stretched out her hand to greet us with a warm, friendly smile on her face. This was our first face-to-face meeting with Rosebell Owiti, better known as Bella or Artsy BelaBela, she hosted us at her studio in Bamburi. After hearing about her from Esther Kimemia and tracking her online, I must say, the experience of meeting her did not disappoint, she is exactly the same online as she is in person. The lively 34 year old shares her story and perspective with an enthusiasm that uplifts.
Bella has loved everything art since she was a child, even though she didn’t always have access to it as freely as she would have wanted, outside of the bits and pieces that a public education provides. So, when she was in high school, she watched with great anticipation the progress of completion of the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts (BIFA), envisioning a future after school where she would be able to delve deeper into her beloved world. She even managed to secure an acceptance letter to BIFA while in her final year, but her parents’ response? “No, no, no, no, Bella. This is just a Diploma!” Her well-meaning parents wanted their beloved firstborn to pursue something more solid and predictable like medicine or law.
Bella was disappointed, but what could she do? So, she first tried a degree in Linguistics, which she quit in her second year, later she commenced a Bachelor of Commerce degree, but her heart just wasn’t in it, so she dropped out. She would have loved to go and study art at one of the universities, but her vision and that of her parents just didn’t link up. Bella is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Business Administration, and though she has deferred it for one semester, she plans to someday complete it; and In case you’re wondering, it’s not for lack of academic brilliance, Bella is a brilliant student, it’s just that her passion is for Art and nothing else fills that spot in her heart.
At the age of 22, BelaBela’s desire to explore her creative side led her to an artistic hub in Kisumu. A lady in Kisumu, Eunice Ogot, herself desiring to explore her creative side, had set up this place where artists could come and develop their skill, sell their art and grow. It was here, in this creative atmosphere that she began to hone her craft. Surrounded by fellow artists, Bella joyfully created beautiful art, adorning the fine pottery sourced from Kakamega, here she learnt the finer details of how to make jewelry, was exposed to painting and other forms of art. No one withheld from the other ideas or information or instruction. She was part of a collective of artists who were all looking for a place to express their creativity and they shared freely. This was later to become part of the inspiration behind her own plans to set up a creative space for artists.
Some years later, she and her husband Tom Ojwang, moved to Mombasa. An opportunity for work had opened up for him there, and Bella began to find ways to balance between her growing family and finding time to create. She said to us, “Every time I have a child, I shut down. I like to give each child about a year of my time. So my art goes on pause.”
Bella started out in artistic business first as an interior designer, transforming spaces by creating unique touches, using one-of-a-kind pieces like customized pottery, coffee tables up cycled from tires, which she collected from when she used to run a carwash. She did interior décor for a while, before adding art to her complement of creative expression. But she didn’t stop there, like we mentioned earlier, Bella loves all things art, so she studied photography at the ‘University of YouTube’, and practiced the various aspects on her children. As she wisely says, “Whatever you want you can learn, as long as you want it so bad.” In time she built up her photography practice to the point where it would generate some much needed revenue.
Time moved along, as it does, and in early 2017, their third child, a beautiful little girl, was born. Then came 2018, the year that Bella describes as one of those when your world turns upside down. One day, her sweet little baby who was now learning how to walk, suffered a burn accident. At the same time her mother suffered a diabetic foot ulcer and was hospitalized. Bella found herself in Nairobi, sleeping in the hospital beside her baby, while her mother was in the ICU at the same time. Talking about her mother, she says, “It was one of those things where one thing leads to another, so diabetic ulcer leads to blood pressure, leads to heart condition. It was so bad that my mother, I think at one time died and then woke up again.”
Her mother’s leg ended up having to be amputated at the knee. “We had to seek the intervention of a plastic surgeon to help my daughter’s hand,” she says. It was difficult on them financially and the whole experience was such a weight emotionally as well. “I saw God use people to assist in ways I cannot describe, my mother was discharged on time, all bills paid, and my daughter’s hand is not fully healed but she is gaining use of her hand again.”
Because of that season, her art was put on hold for a time. Once things settled again, Bella was low on cash but full of determination to continue and to find a space where she could finally be able to give voice to every possible aspect of artistic creativity for herself and for others.
That day came, in 2018, when Bella found what she hoped would be a home for her future studio, in Bamburi area of Mombasa. She negotiated a rate with the landlord and slowly by slowly started to build up the place. She would earn a little money here and there and save up and then put something on the site. With the support of her husband, she gradually converted the site from a swampy piece of ground, to something stable, and taking the pieces of scrap metal that she and her husband had painstakingly gathered over time, put up the structure that would house her studio.
It was a labor of love and she must have done a really good job of it, but something unexpected happened. The landlord who she had been negotiating with turned up one day when the structure had finally gone up. It seems a little spark of an idea had gone off inside him, triggering thoughts about how else he could use the plot and how much he could potentially make from it after seeing the structure.
He now told Bella that she would need to increase the amount she was paying him to an amount that was beyond her. It just wasn’t going to be possible for her. She tried negotiating with him to convince him to continue as per their original terms, but he wasn’t budging. Deeply disappointed and heartbroken she had to bring the structure down and had to let go of the location. Out of options and money, her dreams crushed, Bella stored all her recovered metal building materials, in the compound of their house took her children and went to her mother’s house to regroup.
But God had been up to something in the midst of all this. When she came back to Mombasa, God moved and her friend (and former landlord) checked in with her to find out what was going on. His brother owned an empty plot of land just a walking distance from the one where she had constructed her first studio, it had been vacant for a while. Her friend told her, “I’ll talk to him; I’ll get you that land.” And he did. Not only did he do that but his brother cleared all outstanding debts connected to the property and gave it to her at a price and terms reasonable enough for her to afford.
And so, in October, 2018, Bella’s dream of having a studio was back on track! She says, “I think God is the One Who pulled me out of that land and brought me here. It’s bigger, we’ve been able to put more here. I have seen God here. My workers came and put up the structure for me using the materials that we had used on the previous structure, my neighbor across runs a hardware store and told me just pick what you need and pay me slowly, we’re neighbors. I think people here just saw what I went through on the other side and they wanted to help me.” Things were beginning to turn around for Bella. “It’s not complete; we do something on it every day. My friends come by and also offer to do things for me, like to paint a wall.” She enjoyed so much favor during her reconstruction; a friend told her that it was a result of all the seeds she had sown in people’s lives over time.
“So we built; I put a photo studio here and that’s what we were focusing on because it brings in some money. Then one day my camera died. Now I have a studio and no camera!” she says, laughing. She continues, “There was a mosaic I was working on, to replace a painting I had sold from my house and I had hung it in the studio. Then a guy came to the studio one day and asked to buy it. He said he had a gallery in Kilifi and he wanted pieces like the one I had. I didn’t want to sell it, so I gave him a price that was intended to discourage him and make him go away. And he said, “okay!”
On Faith “I pray this story will prove that God is real. Do not limit God, dare Him by pursuing what seems impossible…”Bella Owiti
Surprised, Bella sold her first mosaic artwork, she added to her savings and this allowed her to replace her camera, but it also started her on a new and unexpected path. In April this year, when MyTribeisArt were holding the “Safari ya Sanaa” (journey of art) exhibition at Alliance Française in Nyali, Mombasa, she was called upon to prepare some mosaics, so she gathered her team and they sat together and created. One of the pieces she made called, Beautiful African Woman, was sold to someone from Norway and was sent on a gallery tour in Norway. In an article on that piece, Bella is quoted as saying that African culture is slowly fading away as people embrace Western values. She is further quoted as saying that, “Our culture should not be wrapped in ugliness. I am passionate about showing the beauty of African girls and women. They are beautiful strong powerful and embrace their cultures. All these should be celebrated.”
Her success led to even more attention, this time from a prestigious Italian magazine which wanted to feature the talented Bella, and so they sent a crew down to Bamburi to spend a day and a half with her, talking to her about her work, her places and sources of inspiration.[As an aside, they said – in surprise – “is this all Mombasa has to offer?!” but that’s a story for another day] The interviewer was so perplexed by the choice of Bella for their prestigious magazine, that he even asked her, “Why you?” Under her breath she said, “You don’t know who my Father (God) is!”
Towards the end of June, Rosebell received some difficult news, her mom had passed away. It was a death that hit Bella hard. She had been very close to her mom, a real source of strength and inspiration to her. “My dad died when I had just started my first degree in the university. I’m the first born, so the rest of my siblings were all in high school. My mom was a teacher and they weren’t earning much, but she did everything that she could to take care of us and put us through school. Sometimes taking loans, doing hustles on the side to make it work; and she did. All my siblings have their university degrees. And we were never alone; she was always taking care of other children and raising them up. Once she was through, she decided to better herself and did her first degree. She had almost completed her Masters’ when she passed on.” During her funeral, everyone her mom had helped stepped in to support in some way. Again about seeds sown. She says also that her church, Trinity Chapel, Mombasa have been a rock in her journey.
Bella’s response to her mother’s death, once she returned to Mombasa from the funeral, was to put together Mombasa’s first ever children’s Art Camp. To quote a bold declaration she made online, “I am my mother’s daughter. I fight on…” True to her word, she has and is. The Art Camp was a great success, drawing interest and participation from Mombasa and Nairobi and beyond, even getting some media coverage in a national newspaper. “I wanted to get my mind onto other things, mum’s passing was hard on me and if I didn’t put my head to work, depression was the other option.” she says, adding that “The idea for the Art Camp was conceived and concluded in two weeks. Looking at it now you would think that it was planned for six months. But like I say, this is bigger than me. It’s God.” The Art Camp was held during the month of August, which is one of the longer school holidays, and even though Bella is a multi-talented artist, she brought together her ‘tribe’ from the art scene in Mombasa to each bring their unique specialties to teach to the children. Each day, the participants learnt a different aspect of art and at the end of it they held an exhibition to give the budding artists the experience of showcasing and selling their art to parents and other art enthusiasts who attended.
Bella also does weekly art training sessions with children, where she and other artists teach these young minds diverse art skills “Why children?” We asked. “I wanted to put my effort where it would make the greatest difference in 2 or 3 years. I want to prove that there is talent in Mombasa not just Nairobi. Art is so heavily underappreciated in Mombasa. It’s bad. During the exhibition at Alliance Française the artists from Nairobi came here quoting prices for their art that were shocking and in comparison our pricing was so low because generally the art culture in Mombasa is wanting.”
Of her studio, she says, “I built this place to be able to showcase all types of art. I love music, I wish I could sing but I just croak, but music is one of the talents I wish I had. I want to create a space for all types of art to be showcased because Mombasa has raw talent and I want to grow it.” Bella sees a huge gap in education, where the teaching of art is not given the prominence that it deserves. To remedy this, she is planning to set up a vocational training element at her studio in consultation with the Ministry of Education, to help deepen art skills in Mombasa.
How does what you do tie back to who you are in God?
“It’s my purpose.” She says confidently, “I may not have seen the whole picture yet, but I know I’m on track. This is what I’m meant to be doing.”
She laughingly adds this little nugget, “I nearly changed my name, I didn’t like my name until I realized it could make a good brand name. I was called Nelly for a long time, until my grandmother died and then my father changed my name to hers. But now I love it. You know Bella means Beautiful?”
Smiling, she also tells us, “I named my daughter Nelly.”
There seems to be a huge competition between art and photography. In my opinion, photography seems to be taking the lead globally. What do you think is the reason for this?
“Photography is art, so there’s no competition. It uses the same principles of composition, light and shadow. It’s the same. Most of the young people who walk in here and want to be taught photography, most of them do it because it is ‘cool’. They want to walk around with a camera on their shoulder. And I can tell you, when you do something because it is ‘cool’, most people will drop off.”
Which do you prefer? Photography or art?
Unless you’re talking about visual art in which case I’d say, can I have both? With photography you can take a hundred photos and choose one, but with visual art, you are building up the frame and it’s only one. So maybe visual art.
Her advice to parents in Afrika and Afrikans in general who may be struggling to find what they are really meant to do and are currently engaged in activities that do not fulfill?
“I am just like they were. Before I started pursuing art deliberately, I did some other things and I struggled. I was happiest when I was teaching art to children while I worked at an NGO and when I was distributing sanitary towels at another NGO. But having to sit at a desk, I struggled. That’s when I was my most creative in my mind, imagining what else I could be doing. Even during my studies, I would be reading and imagining a project I could be working on.
They should make room for their children to learn alongside those other things they want their children to study. In the end they will be more fulfilled if they are able to find ways to express themselves artistically.”
She’s not an advocate for forcing children to be what they are not meant to be, “My first born son is not interested in art, so I don’t force him. I only forced him during the Art Camp,” she laughs, “but otherwise, I don’t force him. I believe that a lot of these young people who are going around slashing people in Bamburi, at least 25% of them, are artistic in nature and are just frustrated because they don’t have access to a way to express it.”
Any final words?
On Art “I keep saying this, artists are not ordinary people. They are extraordinary. There is this extra that they have above the ordinary human. This is what breaks my heart because it’s not right that they suffer trying to prove it. They need support from ordinary humans,” laughs Bella.
On Faith“I pray this story will prove that God is real. Do not limit God, dare Him by pursuing what seems impossible. If that’s His intention for you, He shall see you through no matter the circumstance.”