Jua Kali Art Diary II; Another World is Possible

African Woman in Glass by Nani Croze

BY Dr. Margaretta wa Gacheru

The first week in February was extraordinary for a jua kali trekker like me. Monday found me struggling to find the right matatu to get me to the Fairview Hotel where the GoDown Art Centre was hosting a day-long “Conversation on Nairobi” featuring two keynote speakers—Kenyan historian Dr. Godwin Murunga from Kenyatta University and the Kenya Leadership Council and Rasna Warah, the fiery Monday Nation columnist—and a wonderful audience including people like Tabu…from Ketebul Music (also hosted at the GoDown), Dr Mshai Mwangola, formerly of the Aga Khan University, now wife of the outstanding Kenyan muckraker John Githongo, Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba, and GoDown’s own Judy Ogana and the Conversation’s host, Joy Mboya. We talked all day about what it meant to be a “Nairobian: Born and Bred” which of course, I am not. But I did claim, not to have been born in Nairobi, but REBORN there!

Then to the Nation Centre where I turned in my second Arts story of 2012 for Business Nation, based on my Sunday interview with Kenya’s most highly trained sculptor Gakunju Kaigwa. The story would eventually appear in Friday’s Business Daily, but the editor Rhoda Orengo was not satisfied with my photos. Fortunately, Gakunju emailed her a bunch of his own images, so they would appear in the Friday story. Gakunju is very special to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that I have known him for years and watched him grow and experiment with many media, including stone cinder blocks, Kisii stone, Cararra marble from Italy, scrap metal and steel wire used to create public art (something he got a Masters of Fine art in at University of Dundee, Scotland), fiberglass and even bronze, the casting of which he learned while studying in the States at the Johnson Foundry on the East Coast.

Woman in Fibreglass by Gakunju Kaigwa

On Monday, I even got to a movie at the Alliance Francaise on Noam Chomsky, America’s leading public intellectual. Watching with my American friend Dr. Dana Seidenberg-Gacheru, we both lamented the fact that we couldn’t hear the words of the great radical thinker because the French translator overdubbed his voice but gave us no subtitles at all. So annoying!!

Tuesday, I went to Juja for an interview at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology which was very fruitful. Then I dashed back to Alliance Francaise for the outstanding two man exhibition of paintings by Gor Soudan and Paul Onditi, both of whom paint in greys, blacks and white, but both make powerful political statements in their art about the topic and title of their show: ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE, which also happens to be the theme of the World Social Forum, happening currently in Brazil. The WSF is a counter-cultural event and critique of the simultaneous event happening annually in Davos Switzerland, the World Economic Forum, where all the global elites come to cry about the state of the world economy. Both painters are highly symbolic and skilled artists who have much to say with their work which is largely about the inequalities of the current global system where the vast majority are left impoverished while the top 1 percent live a life of luxury.

Wednesday I taught my second class at Kenya Methodist University on the subject, Freelance Journalism. Exciting. Then I dashed to Kitengela to interview Nani Croze for a story that Rhoda wants to appear in next week’s Friday paper. To get to Kitengela, I must trek from the Nairobi University side of town down to the Railways to catch the Ongat Rongai bus, then get off at the Maasai Lodge and take a 200 shilling boda boda across bumpy roads to Nani’s Glass Palace which is all made out of recycled materials, especially broken glass beer and soda bottles, broken crockery and cups, used beer cans and recycled plastic materials of all types. Nani is just now creating a new TREE FROG KIOSK which will be both a gallery and upstairs restaurant overlooking the Kiserian Gorge and the Siloe Sanctuary which is land donated by the former MP and Kenya government minister John Keen. I don’t get to talk to Nani much since her old friend Ute Goodwin, an Austrian Kenyan citizen who was once the next door neighbor to Nicholas Biwott, is coming for the night. I find 80 year old Ute fascinating since she knows so many insider stories about Kenyan politics. Mrs Biwott, the Israeli who enabled her husband to meet and employ countless ex-Mossad Israeli intelligence agents, was her good friend. I make good use of my time at Kitengela since Nani gives me one of her glass rondaval huts to stay in while she is speaking to Ute who stays now in Malindi and plants hundreds of Neem trees as one of her contributions and gifts to Kenya.

Yony Waite – Founder of Gallery Watatu

Thursday, I hitch a ride back to town early with Ute (who flew back to Malindi today) since I was meeting Yony Waite, the founder mother of Gallery Watatu at 11am. I make it in time, and we have a glorious reunion with the former Jony, who changed her name as well as her citizenship in protest vs. the former Bush 1 Administration’s attack on Somali during the days of Blackhawk Down. Yony is now a Kenya citizen and divides her time between staying at Lamu where she has her Wildebeeste Workshop and Athi River where she lives on her former husband’s Game Range and where she has just built a brand new Wildebeest West Gallery. We drive to Athi River with Yony who has come to Nairobi to collect some of her paintings from Gallery Watatu, the place she co-founded in 1968 with fellow artist Robin Anderson and a man called David Hart. Yony also spends much of her time painting murals in the various Serena Hotels not just in Kenya but in Uganda and Tanzania as well. I am hopeful that we can work with Yony to do a book on all her art housed in the Serena Hotels, be they in Entebbe, Amboseli, Arusha, or Nairobi. But in the meantime, I hope to write about her new gallery, which isn’t yet finished but it is big and beautiful and made with Machakos stone and Makuti grass roofing from Mombasa. Yony is gracious and generous and lives quietly with her books and her paints and canvases and her incredible art. One can easily see why her art work is filled with tangled bush grass and giraffe, wildebeest and migration scenes which she used to see often right outside her front door. Hers is a majestic view of Kenya’s glorious savannah lands. Unfortunately, some of the wildlife has been crowded out by grazing cattle herds which have recently been let it by Yony’s ex, David Hopcraft.

Africa in cement & recycled glass by Nani Croze

Coming back from Athi River by country bus, I marvel at my amazing week. I teach at night at KEMU and I am blessed to have bright students who love journalism just as much as I do. My Gakunju story is featured in the Business Daily and I ask Rhoda if for next week I can write about Dennis Muraguri whose Matatu Art is up at La Rustique Hotel. I’ll interview the artist Saturday and go to a play that night. I feel very fortunate to be back in Kenya, where I told the group on last Monday, I wasn’t born but was reborn here–reborn as a fully-fledged jua kali lover of Kenyan art and artists.

All images courtesy of Margaretta wa Gacheru

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