By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted to EA 22 October 2018)
Jak Katarikawe (1938-2018) is one East African artist who is difficult to write about in the past tense. He was, until last Friday, a living legend who inspired younger artists for both his talent and apparent financial success. He was among the first East Africans whose artworks could sell for hundreds of thousands of shillings a piece.
Jak’s legendary status was confirmed last Friday when news spread like wildfire on social media that Jak had passed on. He’d been found alone and unconscious by a cousin who’d come to his Forest Road flat to cook for him as his wife Florence was back in Uganda. Friends had tried to get Jak to return with her as he’d built a family home in Western Uganda. Yet he refused.
He died while on route to Nairobi Hospital.
In his prime, Jak was known as an ‘African [Marc] Chagall’, named after the 20th century modern artist who, like Jak, created colorful, whimsical artworks that always had an enchanting narrative. He’d never had a chance to go to school but he had natural talent. Plus his mother was artistic and the stained glass windows of the local church taught him the value of translucent colors and the power of art to tell powerful tales.
Jak’s big break was becoming a driver for one Makerere University professor who saw his talent and took him to be mentored by Professor Sam Ntiru, head of Makerere’s Art Department. From there he came to Kenya in the early 1970s and eventually exhibited at Paa ya Paa, Gallery Watatu and French Cultural Centre.
Jak was already established when the late Ruth Schaffner bought Gallery Watatu in 1985 and quickly took Jak under her wing. She soon became Jak’s mentor, mother-figure and money bank. She took his art worldwide, but after she died in 1996, Jak never recovered. He went into mourning and never got over his grief.
Jak will primarily be remembered for the luminous artworks he created between the mid-70s and mid-90s. But to his friends, he’ll be remembered as the sweet-spirited gentleman whose skill in visual storytelling is sublime.