By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 28 August 2018 for Saturday Nation)
Appreciation of women’s role in the development of the visual arts in East Africa has been a long time coming. But that oversight is being rectified as of next Sunday, 8th September when the Nairobi Gallery (the former PC’s HQ just next to Nyayo House) hosts a monumental exhibition featuring the artistic expressions of nine extraordinary “Women Pioneers in the Arts.”
Every one of the nine has an exceptional story to tell, starting with Margaret Trowell, the English artist who came to Uganda in the 1930s and launched the fine art department at Makerere University. That department has produced countless Creatives including several women among the notable nine. Among them is Kenya’s own Rosemary Karuga, now 92, who was the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s fine art department from 1950 to 1952.
Theresa Musoke, the Ugandan artist who lived, worked and exhibited in Kenya for 20 years when her country was in turmoil, got her first university degree at Makerere. But then she became one of the first African women to win a Commonwealth scholarship to study and exhibit at the Royal College of Art in UK. She went on to get a masters in fine art from USA and later taught at Kenyatta University alongside another one of the nine.
Geraldine Robarts didn’t study at Makerere. She taught fine art there as well as at Kenyatta University and trained everyone from Elkana Ong’esa to Gakunju Kaigwa in the process. Yet just like Theresa, her primary passion is painting and she’s exhibited her oil paintings all over the world.
Professor Magdalene Odundo didn’t attend Makerere, but like all nine women pioneer artists, she’s an educator as well as an acclaimed ceramicist. Recently elevated to Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts in UK, Magdalene is the only Kenyan woman who’s been given an OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2016.
The remaining four are not academics in the sense of being university-affiliated. But they all have either mentored a myriad of emerging artists in the region or opened doors for them by other means. For instance, the late Joy Adamson may be most renowned for her role in raising orphaned lions and writing books like ‘Born Free’ which was made into movies and TV series that have inspired countless tourists to come here on safari. But she is actually the first artist to paint portraits of Kenya’s indigenous people back in the 1940s. She also drew fauna and flora, but her portraits are invaluable records of Kenyan cultures, many of which are no more.
Two of the nine are co-founders of Kenya’s first commercial art gallery in Nairobi and the first to exhibit African artists like Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe. The late Robin Anderson and Yony Waite established Gallery Watatu in 1968. Both brilliant artists in their own right, Yony also founded the Wildebeeste Workshops, one in Lamu where she’s worked with several women groups to create collaborative tapestries, the other at Athi River where she runs artists workshops periodically.
Number nine is Nani Croze, another institution builder who established Kitengela Glass and Research Trust in 1979, founded the Kenyan Arts Diary in 2010 and also established the first Rudolf Steiner School in East Africa in 1969. Self-taught as a painter, muralist and sculptor before she started creating glass art, Nani like Yony has run countless workshops including some for young women from Nairobi slums.
Alan Donovan of the African Heritage House and director of the Murumbi Trust is the one who researched and curated this exceptional show which will be opened by the Ministry of Education’s Cabinet Secretary, Ambassador Amina Mohamed.