Kenyan-born student Rosemary Onyango touches hearts and minds in Nebraska
Painting is an art form that has historically been capable of profound emotional depth despite its limited physical dimensions. As such, it can be daunting for an aspiring artist to take the next step of showcasing their artwork. For Rose Onyango, her desire to express herself has been a driving factor in sharing her art with the world.
Onyango is a fourth-year political science and global studies double major from Kenya. Growing up in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, she started drawing with limited supplies, creating sketches from graphite and charcoal. Now she paints with brushes and buckets, conceiving full-colored illustrations, some of which are on display in the College of Business. She said all of them express the specific state of mind she was in when she painted them.
Onyango didn’t properly begin painting until she was gifted an acrylic painting set by a close family friend for Christmas after her family moved to Omaha in 2013.
In the formative years that followed, Onyango said she was inspired by many of the murals in South Omaha, while also drawing from the many tribal cultures of Kenya that she was exposed to.
“Growing up [in Nairobi], you don’t get to pick one thing. You live around so many different cultures and you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m just one artist.’ You get influenced by a lot,” Onyango said.
Onyango said she puts a lot of emphasis on the emotional aspects of her paintings. When doing portraits, she says she often paints the people closest to her. While she tries to capture the qualities that best define each subject, Onyango said she’s also expressing her own emotions through these paintings.
“Painting other peoples’ emotion is the way I feel about people,” she said. “Sometimes I’m angry at my sister, and I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s put that there,’ because I feel like painting helps release the good and bad energy.”
According to Onyango, channeling her emotions through art is ever present throughout her work, including her more abstract and recent paintings. These works feature vivid colors that capture everything from multi-colored flowing patterns to scenes inspired by nature.
Many of these eye-catching works utilize a method of painting known as “pour painting,” which involves thinning paint down to a watery consistency and then letting it freely flow over the canvas. This style of painting makes for an exciting experience, according to Onyango.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Onyango said. “The surprise of it is what’s alive, because if I paint the same thing over and over and I know exactly what’s going to come out, that gets boring after a while.”
Mikki Sandin, the international business and inclusion coordinator for the College of Business at UNL, has witnessed Onyango’s paintings firsthand. After being captivated by Onyango’s story in a UNL Student Spotlight article, Sandin reached out hoping to learn more about Onyango and her artwork.
Sandin was especially struck by a piece that Onyango gifted to her, a painting comprised of blue-green hues. She said she was especially moved by the tranquility that the piece evoked.
“Looking at that piece, it really just drew me in,” Sandin said. “There’s a sense of energy, but also just peace because I think blue and green are just very peaceful colors.”
Such distinct reactions are something Onyango said she hopes to impart upon viewers of her art, whether those reactions are positive or negative.
“If you look at my art and go, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful,’ or if you look at it and go ‘Oh my gosh, that’s ugly,’ that’s an emotion too,” Onyango said. “At the end of the day, we all have different perspectives we see from depending on how we’ve lived our lives.”
Onyango said the inspiration to put her artwork on public display was heavily influenced by Sandin, who urged her to bring some of her works to the College of Business to be displayed in the new Diversity and Inclusion Gathering Space (DIGS).
“She’s one of those amazing people in the college,” Onyango said. “I feel like Mikki is one of those people who’s just there to help connect people with other people.”
While getting her artwork more recognition is something Onyango hopes to constantly work toward, she said she tries not to focus too much on it.
“You don’t consider yourself an artist until somebody buys an art piece or you get into a gallery,” Onyango said. “I think just working towards removing myself from the idea of what defines an artist, I didn’t pass that hurdle until I loved myself.”
Nonetheless, Sandin said she sees great potential in Onyango’s future as an artist and hopes that encouraging her to showcase her art in the DIGS space, as well as on social media, will open the door to invaluable opportunities.
“I think this is a way for Rose to hopefully gain some new connections, not just followers on Instagram,” Sandin said. “Someone might see her art and really help her go to the next level.”
Ultimately though, Onyango said she just hopes to leave a positive impact on others with her art.
“I understand that not everybody’s going to like the painting, but also, like, there’s those few individuals who are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is beautiful,” Onyango said. “I want to be able to put a smile on somebody’s face.”