Kenyan writer and artist Naila Aroni on the art of self-love


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Kenyan writer and artist Naila Aroni on the art of self-love

COLORS is now working with seasonal color palettes to inspire all activities across our brand. To celebrate the launch of PALETTE 1, we’re publishing “COLORS STORIES” by contributors from our community that delve into what the hues in the palette mean to them.

The deep reds from PALETTE 1 inspired London-based Kenyan writer and artist Naila Aroni, who is the artist behind the album artwork for recent COLORS artist Nyokabi Kariũki’s EP ‘peace places: kenyan memories’, to reflect on the theme of self love. For COLORS, she drew her own self portrait, and wrote an opinion piece meditating on the thoughts, feelings and topics—from art’s power to instill people with a sense of agency to substandard conditions in the creative industries—that arose during the process.

This self portrait was my first attempt at creating art in two years. I failed miserably. When I first sat down to draw, I hoped that having my sketchbook and pastels to hand was enough to resuscitate the muscle memory of my past life as an artist, but the insurmountable pressure pulsing through my fingers was numbing. I initially fought through it, mapping out the dimensions of my face with each rigid stroke of the pastel. When I finished the outline of the sketch, my heart sank as I realized that I’d miscalculated the proportions of my face: my eyes were too far apart, and my nose was clearly too small. The caricature of myself I’d created stared back at me, provoking me with my amateurish mistakes. The disappointment was deafening. It was a harrowing reminder of why I stopped painting in the first place.

My relationship with art is complicated. I often ask myself if being an artist is worth the painful contradiction of investing in a craft that’s so emotionally draining. Any desire I have to create is usually snuffed out by the fear of failure, meaning that I give up before I’ve even started. It wasn’t always like this: there was a time when I could see in color, when I was free from the black and white that told me my art simply wasn’t good enough. Is it possible to resurrect this childlike joy and restore my artistic assertiveness?

After struggling with drug addiction as a teenager, the visual artist Cristina Nuñez found solace in taking photographic self-portraits. Her project “Someone to Love”, features some of these images, which were captured over a twenty year period. “Shot after shot I live through all my different personas, looking for something I still do not know of myself,” Nuñez explains. “Whatever I do, I always succeed: my sheer humanity will always be expressed in the picture.” In short, Nuñez discovered that self-portraits, in her own words, “stimulate the unconscious to ‘speak’ with the language of art”.

My favorite photo from Nuñez’s collection is an aerial-shot, nude, self-portrait of the artist lying on her bed staring wistfully into the distance. While some may view it as an ordinary, expressionless, ‘selfie’, I see a woman in deep contemplation. She’s lying in her stillness, examining her naked truths, and finding comfort in isolation. It demonstrates that the healing power of self-portraits doesn’t just lie in the creation of an end product. Rather, it’s the introspective questions the artist asks themselves during the process that offers therapeutic assistance.

“Is being an artist worth the painful contradiction of investing in a craft that’s so emotionally draining?”

Inspired by Nuñez, I started my painting afresh with a great level of resolve. As I outlined the perimeters and coloured in the crevices of my face, I traced my thoughts back to where my love of art all began—my childhood. Vivid imagery of paintings, school uniforms permanently splattered with paint, and my terrarium-like bedroom covered in my creations came to mind. When I was younger, knowing that I could create something from my imagination to inspire myself and those around instilled me with a great sense of agency. Curator Joanne Woodall describes the relationship between the artist and the art as a doorway to connecting with our ‘divine self present in every human being’. This must have been why I felt like the best version of myself whenever I was creating.

The comfort and nostalgia of my childhood was short lived, however, and it wasn’t long before I automatically began scrutinizing the proportions of this new portrait. This time, instead of allowing the feelings of shame and disappointment to engulf me, I thought back to Nuñez’s directions and decided to let my inner thoughts speak. I asked myself: “where does this insatiable expectation of perfection stem from?” Having received art and writing prizes at school, I knew from a young age that I was a “gifted” child. My confidence quickly diminished due to not feeling seen by those whose opinions mattered most. My mum and dad didn’t support my creativity as they didn’t see art as a viable career path—an ironic viewpoint considering my parents are both art lovers. As a result, I obsessed over my technical abilities, thinking that by getting “better” I could prove to them that my creativity was worth the investment. It turned out I couldn’t, and their rejection of my art felt like a rejection of me.

While I have grieved for my wasted potential, I have also found acceptance, and no longer resent my parents. Could they have done more to support me? Perhaps. However, now that I’m older, I am beginning to see how their worldview, shaped by the trauma of growing up poor, is radically different to the one I’m afforded by my privileged upbringing. Their lens of life was survival, meaning that anything that wasn’t about achieving social security was a luxury they couldn’t afford, including doing things they loved.

Traditional Kenyan cultures have a history of creative expression as a means of communication and identity formation, yet the arts are deprioritised in the country’s contemporary public sphere. This is largely a result of how the British colonial administration implemented an educational system based on ideologies of capitalist production where education was not about molding freethinkers, but disciplining Kenyans into technically capable subjects to provide labor for white settlers and for agricultural export. Consequently, Kenya’s educational system, which has existed since 1985, remains a colonial relic: the arts are classified as extracurricular activities as they, unlike STEM subjects, supposedly don’t contribute to the economy. This categorization of the arts as ‘unproductive’ informs the value of labor in our creative industry, which is characterized by lack of regulation, informal working standards, and poor wages.

“The key to transforming my perception of my art starts with having compassion for the artist I am today.”

Contemplating these adverse experiences from my past helped me to realize that the friction I’ve faced with my artistry is not a personal failure. Instead, my experience is related to the collective struggle that many Kenyan artists experience trying to forge a creative career in the absence of functioning systems and institutional support. Given the direct correlation between the work people do and our sense of self-worth, it’s highly likely that I’ve internalized these negative experiences as character flaws and projected them onto the work I create. It’s a sobering reminder that practicing art sustainably is incomplete without investing in mindfulness and self-love.

I came back to my portrait one last time to add the final touches. Having freed myself from the pressure to produce a hyper-realistic image of myself, I was able to color in my face and breathe life into it. During the process of creating my self-portrait, I’ve accepted that the key to transforming my perception of my art starts with having compassion for the artist I am today. Falling in love with my art won’t happen overnight, but in a split-second of seeing my reflection staring back at me, I could finally see my humanity in all its glory.

This COLORS STORY was produced in response to the red, orange, yellow ochre, and clay like umber tones in PALETTE 1, COLORS’ first seasonal palette running from October – December 2023. Head over to our YouTube channel to watch shows from the PALETTE—particularly Nyokabi Kariũki’s, as Aroni was behind the artwork for her debut album ‘peace places: kenyan memories’—or read more COLORS STORIES by clicking here.

Text: Naila Aroni
Imagery: Naila Aroni
Portrait photography: Charlie Troulan


What our community says

A great piece! I really like the way her self-perception is broken down through her artistic process. Quite relatable as well. I really enjoyed this and it has inspired me to try and get back to creative expression!

Catherine Kaggwa - South Africa

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