A photo on their blog shows the two style masterminds behind 2manysiblings seated next to each other against the background of a starlit sky. The sky boasts a mix of orange and yellow and blue that you only see when you leave Nairobi. The type of sky that inspires the fear that even though we live in places and meet people that every second in the world there are a million a billion a zillion different things happening and we are missing out on them. 2manysiblings is a two-person art collective who, apart from running a popular art and style blog, get styling gigs and also organize events where fellow style enthusiasts can buy and sell fashion-forward clothing.
Velma and Papa Petit are siblings (truly brother and sister, Velma insists) who call Nairobi home and whose art has been on the tips of the lips of many. While their blog, on which they display their style through various forms of art, has earned them a name internationally, they are most famous for engaging the local community by curating events like Thrift Social Nairobi, a marketplace where people can buy and sell vintage or second-hand clothing but also encourage people to bring clothes they no longer use, which are then donated to the Jacaranda School. The duo is passionate about creating a space where African artists like musicians and fellow style enthusiasts can meet each other and share their work, and where audiences can interact with these artists.
I am surprised by their identification of themselves as African — I feel that I only took on African as a label central to my identity after I came to the U.S. and met fellow Africans. But perhaps while every country and every city is unique, there are similarities among African cultures across the continent in terms of language, cuisine, fashion and music that would allow for the celebration of differences as well as collaboration between different artists.
If Velma and Papa Petit get the funding they are working toward acquiring, they hope to create an opportunity for these artists to meet within spaces in various African countries and to share their work with the audiences whose stories they are telling, while still maintaining the fluidity of traveling outside the African continent and meeting people who admire their work — not just Africans in the diaspora, but also the many other people who can access their work now thanks to their great social media presence.
Papa Petit tells the story of how they started their work, unaware how far they would come eventually. In the beginning, his sister was still in South Africa studying, and he was home in Kenya. He says that they would share ideas, and they realized that they were both interested in the same thing and eventually started the blog. They are themselves walking testaments of their art. For the exhibition of their work, they show up in eye-catching outfits, with Velma in a neckpiece with a wooden brown detail at the front and tall black shoes that make her seem like she is walking on top of the world. Papa Petit is wearing a red leather jacket and a hat. His short dreadlocks peek out above his forehead underneath its brim.
They do not have a 9-to-5 schedule, something that they both think is one of the perks of the job. Their team includes the two siblings and an administrator. When people reach out to them, they get to work, each sibling carrying his or her weight. Papa Petit is a stylist and Velma a hairdresser. They are thankful that once word started to get out about them, their work has been recognized by many within Kenya and internationally. However, Papa Petit is careful to point out that they do not do their work so that people acknowledge them, but rather are just glad to do what they love. Their modesty could make the unsuspecting fail to notice that their work has been acknowledged by Okayafrica and Yasiin Bey. They are excited to have their work featured in AFRICA SALON’s “mo(ve)ments: African Digital Subjectivities” and to lead conceptual tours of this work.
Both of them value the joy that they get from working in art more deeply than they value its other benefits. Velma’s face, with her long black braids on each side, becomes animated when she talks about how her favorite thing about the work she does is that it makes her happy. She is surprised that I am pursuing writing and in between knowing giggles we discuss how I convinced my parents to let me write. She wishes that African parents would allow more of their children to pursue art-related careers rather than the stereotypical medicine, law or engineering. It reminds me of an image I saw online in which my friends were joking that in an African home you could either be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a disappointment.
2manysiblings wish that more people were willing to fund art in African countries. Many people are willing to invest in health and education in Africa, but not music and photographs. They wish they could communicate the importance of art to more people, because art is an expression of experiences, of what we go through in life and it is important to invest in that. Organizations like Creatives Garage in Nairobi and Kuona Trust have managed to get some funding and are able to compensate artists for their work.
Recounting Lupita Nyong’o’s success, Velma advises that more African students should be bold enough to give art a chance. 2manysiblings for them is about shaping the contemporary African narrative. African countries have suffered because their narrative has always been shaped by people other than themselves, and this is one of the things that inspires 2manysiblings’ passion for recounting experiences through art. The caption of the image with the starry night reads: “We must be the ones who see the blaze in ourselves before anyone else. They claim it’s only a trick of the light but we must know that we have stars within us. — Ariana.”