As an artist, you never want your work to have the Déjà vu effect on your audience. A pandemic that can be experienced everywhere from biashara street in the Nairobi CBD to the curios in Maasai market. So when you come across a piece of art or design that is refreshingly different, you need to know more about it. Kangarui is the product of Japanese born, Kenyan raised artist Rui Yamashita. Drawing from her life experiences and her love for travel, her quirky fusion style, filled with animals, colour and collages came to fruition. We caught up with Rui to find out a little more about this new and vibrant brand:Who is Rui?
I’m a freelancing professional web designer and graphic designer. I grew up in Kenya, even graduated high school here, and it had been around eight years since I left when I started to miss home [Kenya]. I remember I was living in Germany and with my free time I would make some artwork out of pure habit. I started to realise that everything I made was related to animals and filled with colour. It was clear that I really missed Kenya.
Then I found this website from the United States where you can upload your own artwork and they can make stuff for you like iPhone cases or cushion covers. So when I did that, companies like Urban Outfitters and Target wanted to sell them on their websites.
Talk about a big break…
I was extremely excited for this opportunity but the reality was that I was hardly making any money from it. This was because I was not manufacturing them and they argued that I was getting a lot of exposure. There’s certain things you can do for exposure and then there’s a limit. It’s what got me thinking that one day I would maybe make my own stuff.
When did you hit that limit?
That ended up being last year when I was back in Tokyo doing freelance web designing and I thought maybe I would look for manufacturers in Nairobi. So I came to Nairobi during Easter last year to see the market and how the printing companies work here. And I realised that many of the gift shops sell a lot of the same thing. There’s a lot of kitenge and animal prints all executed in a similar way. I recognised that there’s a lot of space for my art in this market.
And how would you describe your art?
Kangarui is all about colour, animals and nature. Through watercolour, photography and collage, I’m able to custom-make each piece and then I can carefully print it on to accessories and home decors. My goal is to spread my love for Kenya… I sound very cheesy I know… and the happy vibes people have here. I’ve lived in many different developed countries, where things tend to work, but when things don’t work the way they should, the get very depressed. People in Kenya are much more positive; they go ‘TIA’ (This is Africa) and life goes on. It’s a quality that I want to bring out with my colours. So I thought why not put my art on day to day items that they use often so that even if they can get just a second of that kind of energy, it would be amazing.
You’ve mentioned before that the brand is Nairobi + Tokyo, how do you incorporate both cities in your design?
Because I’m from Japan and Kenya I wanted to ideally make products that are from both places. The fact that my art is digital I started to look for manufacturers in Japan because I wanted to have high printing done on material and the factories in Nairobi are limited. So that’s how I decided to have all my textiles done in Japan and I started with cushions and mobile cases.
Once that was done, I came back to Kenya where I officially started the brand in September 2016. This was still a trial stage, so I would walk into shopping malls to show my stuff and find out people’s reactions to my product. In Japan, you could never do that but people here are friendlier and open. I also decided to do a fair for the same reason. I started with Xmas box to see how my brand would do. And by that time I found myself a manufacturer who could make adventure plates in Kenya. I got a really good response, therefore I started to cut my web design work to focus more on my brand. Right now it’s at a balance of 75%: 25% with more emphasis on Kangarui. It is scary but it’s my labour of love and I hope that I can grow and make more things; spreading the colour everywhere.
Are they one off designs?
Because it’s digital art, it’s not a one off art piece that you hang on a wall. I can print it onto any printable material. That being said, the explorer cushions that come in two different fabrics are limited edition. The vegan suede type have around 20 pieces each left while the canvas cotton are about 10 of each design and I don’t have plans to make more. Simply because importing is very expensive. However, I’ve been making more of the safari pouches, everyday totes and the adventure plates because they’re 100% made in Kenya.
Where can clients find you?
I actually don’t have an online store. People email me with their interests. I run all the main operations by myself but my priority now is to build an online store and figure out the logistics on it. I’m also at the Yard at the Alchemist which features other African designer brands and I’ve also got stock at all Blue Rhino stores in Nairobi.
Why the name ‘Kangarui’ for your brand?
People used to reference kanga a lot, especially as a traditional textile to make headscarves and other clothing. I came up with the nickname about 10 years ago, merging the textile with my first name, and it kind of stuck because it’s memorable. Kanga, which means Guinea Fowl in Kiswahili, also happens to be one one of my favorite animals. Interestingly, people outside of Kenya think that it sounds like a kangaroo and because I like animals they think that’s what it means. But I see it a great way to start a conversation about what my brand means.
Speaking of meaning, why are animals such a strong part of your brand?
I only say it, it’s not strongly featured on my website, because I don’t want people to by my stuff out of guilt or pity. I want people to buy the product because they like it. But the aspect of conservation is something I want to be a part of, especially since there are a lot of issues in Kenya at the moment such as poaching. If I could help in any way, and if it’s through my artwork, that would be amazing. The most important thing is that in the near future I am going to be working with conservationists and giving a percentage of my profit to them to help wildlife.
Any significance behind the animals you choose?
Most of my artwork has a story behind it. For example, the radiant giraffe is a memory from my childhood when we used to go to ‘Giraffe Centre’ a lot. And there are banana trees behind it because we used to have a lot of them in my garden growing up. The plate is yellow because Nairobi is usually very sunny.
Another design is the midnight flamingo. I used to live in Nakuru, so, I would see the lake covered completely in flamingos every day. Sadly this isn’t the case anymore, so it was a nice memory that I expressed through art. Actually the pink you see is created by the flamingo’s feathers. If you look closely you can see that kind of detail.
I like to have a story behind each creation. Some people think I just buy the artwork off the internet and place it on products. But they are all meaningful to me. That’s why I call myself an artist and it’s not just some trendy prints I just whacked on.
What would say is your favourite?
That’s hard to say but the one that stands out the most for me is the Meerkat Adventure. I think that best represents me because I’m a little quirky, jumpy and all over the place too.
Do you design with an outcome in mind?
Never. I love collaging and playing around with layers in Photoshop. I just start off with an animal and then run from there, letting my feelings in that moment guide my choices in colour and illustration.
You’re a relatively new brand, yet, you’ve already done a few collaborations…
I’ve worked with Japanese stationary brand called Bungubox. Japan is known worldwide for its stationary, so we ended making tape, postcards and pencil cases that’s packages in a nifty box. It’s available online and can be shipped here.
We also are about to launch a collaboration with one hundred years. It’s menswear only and is limited edition of 35 men’s shirts where I am working on pockets for them. There’s already so much demand for it, which is great since men are stereotypically scared of colour. But what we’ve found is that the fashion scene is really growing here and many men are willing to take style chances. There are other collaborations in the works, especially for baby goods and conservation initiatives with elephants, but that will be revealed at a later date.
Planning on adding more home-wares and fashion accessories this year?
The latest products I have so far are the tote bags and t-shirts, I want to do more home wares such as table mats but I just need five more of myself to get it all done. I’ve also found that the adventure plates are great for picnic safaris because they’re pretty sturdy. I’m not trying to close myself to a certain demographic or idea.
The fact that people who buy them genuinely seem to be happy with the products. You never really know how people will see your artwork. I also didn’t realise that my artwork was getting all this positive feedback from other young designers and that I can influence them to think that they can try something different. To have this kind of response is definitely a nice feeling.
Time management, finding the right manufacturers and trying to do everything properly. I have been saying that I have to put up each story of each item and include the narrative with the gift so that every time someone buys it they get the item’s history. But there’s only one of me.
Her journey started with looking for a reason to come back to Kenya. An idea that morphed into fashion and interior décor ranging from Kshs1000 to Kshs7000. By embracing her art, and letting it guide her vision, she created an avenue to not only share her talents on a wider stage but also give back to projects she cares about the most. We can’t wait to see what’s next by this eclectic and talented designer.