By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 27 August 2018)
They are nine incredible women “pioneer” artists whose impact on East African art has yet to be fully grasped, but who nonetheless are forces to be reckoned with.
That’s why they are all assembled in one remarkable exhibition, simply entitled “Pioneer Women in the Arts”, which is opening this coming Sunday afternoon in the Nairobi Gallery (the old PC’s HQ) right next to Nyayo House. Researched and curated by Alan Donovan of African Heritage House and the Murumbi Trust, the show will feature not only paintings and drawings, but also ceramics, books and glass sculpture by women who’ve lived and worked in East Africa for many decades.
A few of the nine are no longer with us, namely Margaret Trowell, Joy Adamson and Robin Anderson. But all three are still having an impact on the region, if for no other reason than the rich legacy they have left, both cultural and institutionally. For instance, Margaret Trowell is the reason Makerere University has a brilliant art department: she started it. Joy Adamson’s books, films and TV series which were all based on her life raising baby lions and cheetahs ‘in the wild’ have literally led millions to associate Kenya with wildlife and adventurous safaris. And Robin Anderson’s starting up the first major commercial art gallery in Kenya, Gallery Watatu, with Yony Waite and David Hart paved the way for what’s become the burgeoning art scene that we have in Nairobi today.
But the remaining six in the Women Pioneers show are no less formidable artists whose influence and impact have been both aesthetic (because their artworks are beautiful as everyone will see who comes to Nairobi Gallery any time through September) and educationally since they all have been teachers, lecturers and/or mentors of artists who have followed in their wake.
For instance, Rosemary Karuga who is the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s art department (1950-52) under Margaret Trowell also taught Magdalene Odondo who’s not only Kenya’s first OBE, (given to her by the Queen Elizabeth in 2008). Professor Magdalene is also the first Kenyan woman Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in Farmham, UK.
Then there’s Geraldine Robarts who, in addition to being an indefatigable painter who’s exhibited all over the world, was a lecturer in fine art first at Makerere, then at Kenyatta University. (She’s taught everyone from Elkana Ong’esa to Gakunju Kaigwa.) She’s also trained rural women and men in a range of self-help projects, from weaving sisal tapestries to solar-drying fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.
Then there’s Theresa Musoke who spent 20 years teaching and painting in Kenya, at KU, the International School of Kenya and Kestrol Manor. She also exhibited everywhere from Gallery Watatu and National Museum to Paa ya Paa Gallery and African Heritage. But before that, this brilliant Ugandan artist got her first fine art degree from the Margaret Trowell Art Department at Makerere, her MFA from University of Pennsylvania in the US and in between, she won a Commonwealth scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London where she won accolades for her work.
The last two women are also artists and educators as well as innovators who have dared to branch out and break new grounds with their art. Nani Croze is not only a painter and muralist. She founded the first jua kali glassblowing furnace in Kenya which evolved into the Kitengela Glass and Research Trust. She’s run countless glass art workshops, (some for slum children). But she also founded the first Rudolf Steiner School in East Africa and started the Kenya Arts Diary which annually showcases a wide variety of contemporary Kenyan artists.
And finally, Yony Waite’s name is synonymous with Gallery Watatu since she, Robin and David Hart founded it, opened the doors for artists like Jak Katarikawe, Ancent Soi and Etale Sukuro to exhibit there. She also founded the Wildebeeste Workshops, one in Lamu where she’s worked with women groups to create tapestries that tell their stories, the other at Athi River. Yony has also fearlessly employed her art to advocate for issues she cares for passionately, such as peace and gender equity.
Truly, all nine of these women are pioneers who’ve paved the way for others to follow, such as Syowia Kyambi who studied under Theresa, Anne Mwiti who lectures as KU and Moira Bushkimani who with Janice Iche and Peteros Ndunde will be exhibiting next Saturday week at The Attic Art Space.