Monday, 16 January 2017



By margaretta wa gacheru

She’s the grand dame of contemporary Kenyan art, the co-founder (with the late Robin Anderson and David Hart) of the acclaimed (now defunct) Gallery Watatu, and without doubt, she’s the most long-standing Kenyan-American painter around, having arrived in Kenya shortly before the country gained Independence in 1963.

Yony Waite’s ‘Controlled Accidents’ exhibition that opened recently (January 18th) at Polka Dot Gallery in Karen confirmed that this illustrious artist is still going strong. So much so that not all her artworks (most of which were created in the last year) can actually fit into the Polka Dot, one of Nairobi’s sweetest new art galleries.

But gallerist Lara Ray says that’s no problem since she’ll simply rotate some of Yony’s art so the show will expose most of her newest works before the exhibition ends 15th February.

Fortunately, what does fit in (and outside) the gallery are Yony’s panoramic paintings, views of Nairobi National Park as seen from the front porch of her makuti-roofed cottage out at her family’s Athi River ranch.

One artwork that definitely doesn’t fit inside the gallery is a comfy sofa given to her by a friend after a fluke fire in 2013 destroyed her first Athi cottage and studio gallery which had been filled with an exquisite array of paintings practically all of which were consumed in the fire.

Yony’s treated the sofa (including the cushions) as if it were a canvas on which she’s painted a beautiful reclining nude!

It’s not the first time that she’s painted furniture. In her last two exhibitions, (one at Nairobi National Museum in 2015, the other the following year at One Off Gallery) it was the furniture that most emphatically revealed Yony as the inspired artist who can paint, print or draw on any medium, be it paper, canvas, upholstery or wood.

At the Polka Dot, one will also see the woman’s versatility since her subjects range from wildebeests, rhino, zebra and a bull branded with a ‘campaign for nuclear disarmament’ logo to Lamu street scenes and intricate Swahili designs to North American trees and Nairobi street children. What’s more, her work comes in all sizes and shapes so that one can’t help being in awe of this woman who doesn’t simply paint, draw and print beautiful images.

She’s also got a deep-seated political sensibility, especially as it pertains to environmental concerns. One can see it in her branded bull. It’s also apparent in the landscape paintings that she symbolically shredded, but then reassembled by bonding the pieces back together with gold-leaf paint.

Shredding her art suggests that she meant to mimic what’s currently being done to destroy Mother Earth for short-sighted material gain. But then, I imagine the reassembling of her work is also meant to imply there still might be a shred of hope that the planet can be saved, but only if conscientious steps are taken sooner than later.

Her show is a definite chiaroscuro mix of light and shadow, black and white like her Athi River landscapes. Even the title of her show ‘Controlled Accidents’ suggests an antithetical contrast since by definition, accidents cannot be controlled, except perhaps by an artist like Yony who believes “there are no mistakes [accidents] in life and art, only results you didn’t expect.”

One series in her show illustrates that attitude beautifully. She calls it ‘pyro-graphic art’ since inadvertently, three charcoal sketches of nudes that she’d drawn during a Life Drawing class at Polka Dot, got tossed into a post-Christmas fire.

Explaining her story to BD Life, Yony said she didn’t have festive paper to wrap her Christmas gifts, so she used the paper on which she’d sketched the nudes to wrap her presents.

It was while tidying up that the drawings landed in the fire; but Yony managed to retrieve them before they were burned to a crisp.

The papers were partially damaged, but the artist had an eye to see the surprising beauty of the scorched nudes. So she had them framed and included in her show as an illustration of what ‘Controlled Accidents’ actually look like!

Someone other than Yony Waite (who occasionally spells her name as Wa Ite) might have let the ladies burn to a crisp. Others might have despaired since they felt their artwork had been ruined by the incident. But not Yony. Her marvelous imagination allowed her to see and appreciate ‘the results [she] didn’t expect’.

Meanwhile, Paul Onditi will have a solo exhibition opening Saturday, January 28th at One Off Gallery.

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