Once upon a time, in the late 80s, before Instagram and Twitter, Joy Mboya was a lead singer in a Kenyan pop band called Muskly Speaking. In 1993, she moved to Sydney, Australia, to pursue postgraduate studies in voice at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. Upon her return, in the late 90s, she started a training programme in performance-making for the youth called Fame Trust. This group was among the founders of communal arts space concept, which became the Godown Arts Centre where she is the executive director. The architect by training met JACKSON BIKO at the terrace of the Double Tree, Hilton.
So, apart from Mr T, there’s nobody who has consistently had one hairstyle like you have. And not just a hairstyle, a very peculiar hairstyle. There must be a story to your hairstyle.
(Laughing) There’s absolutely no story. I’ve had this hairstyle forever. I see younger girls spotting it now but I’ve had it for 30 years. (Laughs) But there is no story, I realised that my hair wasn’t excellent, there was no need to keep it, so I got rid of it.
Have you found that people have consistently boxed you because of your hair?
For women, hair is a big thing. I don’t know but maybe my hair has intimidated some people, they thought I’m a bit radical. They think; so what else do you do if you do this with your hair? (Laughs). Only for them to discover that I’m actually a very boring person. I go to work, I go home, I go to work, I go home. The hair is no indication of anything else. When I was much younger, some people thought I would never get married with a hairstyle like this. (Chuckles). Truth is, half the time I’m not even aware of it. It just sits on my head and forget how it looks like.
Where do you think your artistry sprang from?
I think it’s in the family. My grandfather was an accordionist and a singer. My uncle was a writer. He still writes when he can. He used to write some old magazine called Viva. And then of course he also likes to pick up the history of the family, so he did a whole sort of story of our family and where people came from. My late dad was a health inspector and my mother was an accountant. I think I picked both; I’m very logical and rational. So if you ask me to do science I will do science. But if you ask me to do music and art, I will do that. So I sit right in the middle.
What would you say has been your most fulfilling pursuit in art and creativity?
It’s the exercise of imagination and knowing that you’re making something new and different. Experimentation is exciting and the outcome can be surprising. Pushing the boundaries of the impossible has helped me understand that the mundane doesn’t always have to be the way that we experience life.
If one is born in an artistic family but raised in an environment that is far from artistic, will the artistic side come out eventually? How much of the environment influences creatives?
Exposure is important. And the opportunity to see other things and extend creativity is important. A creative person draws out of the reality around. And if it is limited, if it doesn’t give them the opportunities to look over the fence, then they circle around what is there.
Which artistes, dead or alive, do you always imagine has the same spirit as you?
(Long pause) Well, I don’t know that they have the same spirit but maybe there was something around how they were seeing or making that resonated. (Pause) Growing up, I really liked the novels of Virginia Woolf. There was something around that kind of flow of conscience, her details and the way she saw things.
Your daughters (29 and 31 years) have followed both of your artistic paths …
Yeah they did. They’re both very creative. One is pursuing art right now. She’s involved in events, music, fashion, jewellery making and painting. The other one equally gifted though, is working in customer service in Sydney, Australia. I know that if you ask them what kind of mother I was they will probably say I was a tough mom. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you’re wild.
What has been your most profound failure in life and did you learn anything from that?
I don’t think there is one specific failure. I fail all the time. (Pause). One of the things I always feel that I should probably have given more attention to was mastering a musical instrument. I would have loved to know what it feels like, not to be good, but to be really good at something. My girls are musical. We have a piano in the house and it just sits there … I keep saying I have to start piano lessons but I don’t. Can I go through and finish my exams and at 86 and be an accomplished pianist? (Laughs)
It’s only when I was reading up on you that I discovered that you are married to Andrew White, who I have heard is a creative god in the advertising world. What kind of creative spark does that create in a home? Do you guys always just talk of wild futuristic ideas in the house?
(Laughs) No. We worry about who reconciled the bank statement or who’s fixing the car next week. (Laughs). But Andrew is very valuable to me in bouncing off ideas. He’s a sword-smith and a communicator. He also refers to me for context and seeks my opinion if I think an idea is interesting, or how a particular language sounds like to me. So we definitely rely on each other.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always kept this weight. What’s the big secret, Joy? And don’t say genetics.
(Chuckles) It is. But then I discovered an even bigger secret a few years ago. I have hyperthyroidism, which means I’m constantly burning fat. I got rid of my thyroid but I’m still lean so it must be the genetics.
People in their 50s are always saying how comfortable, clear in thought and settled they are. What’s your experience?
I don’t know about clarity of thought, but settled I am. When you hit 50s you are comfortable with yourself. As a younger person, even in your 40s, you probably are under pressure. In 50s, I don’t think there’s anything to prove. I’m finding it’s a good age.
What are you struggling with right now?
(Pause) Finding a break. I need to take some time off work. I keep saying I need to, but I never do.
What’s your definition of happiness?
Happiness is feeling that you’re in the flow of things, that you’re comfortable with yourself, you’re valuable, or making an impact or a difference in some way. That you’re offering value.