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Naperville native Jennifer Sapitro helps Kenyans’ art

Andrew Wabacha paints astronauts, intrigued by how they endure in isolation.

Wabacha hasn’t traveled into space himself. He hasn’t ever left Kenya. Where he lives in the east African nation, people are packed in close — many living in mud huts with no running water.

Wabacha owes a chance to fulfill his artistic dreams — and perhaps to some day travel out of Kenya — in some measure to Jennifer Sapitro, who grew up in Naperville. In 2008, Sapitro, the daughter of a homemaker and a banker, helped start the Uweza Foundation. Among other things, it offers art programs for people in the sprawling, impoverished Kibera section of Nairobi and showcases and sells their artwork through a gallery.

“It gives people a second chance to not waste their lives or not to drown in misery,” Wabacha, 25, says in an interview from Kenya.

A painting titled Fireflies 2 by Andrew Wabacha. Provided to the Chicago Sun-Times

Sapitro, who has lived in Kenya for 11 years, recently was back in Naperville and in Evanston, visiting family and raising money for the foundation.

She had just finished her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Northwestern University when she first traveled to Kenya to volunteer at a children’s home. She ended up in Kibera, where mud roads snaked through a sea of ​​huts with rusting tin roofs.

An estimated 50% of the population there is unemployed, according to charity organizations. Those who find work might make perhaps $3 a day doing jobs like building apartments in Nairobi or unpacking and reselling the bales of thrift clothes that arrive from the United States and Europe.

Sapitro says she looked beyond the extreme poverty.

“People like to say there is so much talent,” she says. “There just aren’t opportunities to use that talent.”

She lived for nine years in Kibera, now lives in neighboring Langata, is married to a Kenyan man and has two small children.

Jennifer Sapitro looks over artwork created by students through her Uweza Foundation in Kenya Jennifer Sapitro looks over artwork created by students through her Uweza Foundation in Kenya. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

“There is so much drive to make your life better,” she says of the people who live in Kibera. “So you feel inspired to get involved.”

Sapitro says that, from her home, she can see Nairobi’s high-rises and a national park.

“You can see the skyline in the background, but there are giraffes and lions, and we can hear hyenas at night from our house,” she says.

The foundation started by raising money to send children in Kibera to school and expanded to offer a soccer team and art classes.

Many of the paintings are scenes of Kibera. One artist, named Wesley Osoro, transformed tin roofing sheets into shards of emerald, sapphire and amethyst.

Another artist, Douglas Maina, painted African elephants, the leader of a herd peering down beneath a sky in shades of blue and plum and charcoal.

Dangerous Beauty painting A painting titled Dangerous Beauty by Douglas Maina. Provided to the Chicago Sun-Times

Sapitro says artists like Osoro often portray the harsh realities of their environment.

“It’s an immensely challenging place to grow up,” she says. “But Wesley paints in these bright colors because, having grown up there, he has a sense of pride, and he wants to tell a different story.”

Cyprian Rasto, a Uweza graduate, exhibited paintings last year in Italy and China.

Monica painting A painting titled Monica by Andrew Wabacha. Provided to the Chicago Sun-Times

The artists’ paintings are for sale on the Uweza Foundation’s website. Prices range from about $50 to $750, with 60% of the proceeds going to the artists and 40% going toward art supplies and to the foundation, Sapitro says.

Wabacha — one of the gallery’s top-selling artists — says he made about $5,000 in 2021 and hopes to make a living as a painter even though he now has a bachelor’s degree in real estate management.

Andrew Wabacha portrait Andrew Wabacha. Provided to the Chicago Sun-Times

Though it’s not all that he paints, Wabacha’s work often features astronauts, mostly solitary, in Earth settings — having a drink, holding a flower, sitting on a rock beside a jar of fireflies — almost always with a swirling night sky in the background.

“It’s exploring how lonely astronauts get,” he says. “Not just anyone would choose to be an astronaut. It has to be some weird, introverted guy. Anyone who is willing to stay away from people. That’s just weird for me. It’s worth exploring and telling a story about it.”

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