Cyrus Kabiru Ng'ang'a
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 24 December 2018)
2018 was ‘off the charts’ as far as contemporary Kenyan art was concerned. One can’t recall a year when there was so much activity among artists who not only exhibited at well-known venues like the National Museum and galleries like Circle Art, One Off, Banana Hill, Red Hill, Polka Dot and the Nairobi Gallery. These were all sites where a wide array of exhibitions were held throughout the year.
Artists also got into the habit of holding ‘pop-up’ shows so that they exhibited their work everywhere from Muthaiga Heights (with Beta-Arts), Metta in Westlands, Karen Landmark, Karen Country Club, Uhuru Garden (at Dream Kona) and the Railways Museum where the BSQ graffiti artists re-designed an old railway car into their own colorful studio.
David Maina exhibited at Karen Landmark Plaza
BSQ were not the only artists to open their studios for show. Brush Tu Art did it. So did Kuona Artists Collective (on a monthly basis). So did Dust Depo. And even artists who had set up studios at Kobo Trust opened their spaces to show their new works this year.
A number of individual artists opened up art spaces of their own. Painters like Adrian Nduma already had Bonzo Gallery while sculptors like Kioko Mwitiki previously had Pimbi Gallery. But then Jeffie Magina left the GoDown to set up Studio Soko while Chelenge van Rampelberg opened her own Chelenge Home Studio. And Geraldine Robarts built a whole new gallery in her back yard. Even the Dutch art consultant Willem Kevenaar opened The Attic literally upstairs in his Nyari home and it was quickly becoming an art space of people’s choice this past year.
Beatrice Wanjiku @ One Off Gallery
Hotels were also more actively supportive of Kenyan artists this year. The Norfolk started the year off by having a solo show for Coster Ojwang right out in their front lobby. Hill Park Hotel held their first exhibition showing Kaafiri Kariuki’s ‘Dancing Pen’ paintings. The new Tamarind Tree Hotel also had a group show of Kenyans, collaborating with Polka Dot Gallery. Sankara Hotel had quarterly exhibitions in collaboration with One Off Gallery. Serena Hotel also collaborated with African Heritage House’s Alan Donovan to exhibit sculptures by the late Expedito Mwebe as well as pre-colonial works from Nigeria, Congo and Kenya. The Intercontinental showed works by Tina Benarwa, Ruth Nyakundi and Dinesh Revankar. And even Sarova Stanley held a one-night visual art festival. But it was the Dusit D2 that hosted a house-full crowd for the 2018 East African Art Auction which was curated by Circle Art Gallery.
The success of the East African auction apparently sparked a wider interest in auctions this year. The TNR Trust (the animal welfare group) had its own Silent Art Auction in cooperation with One Off Gallery. So did Paa ya Paa Art Centre. Kenyan artists were also involved in art auctions in South Africa and UK in 2018.
Meanwhile, restaurants and malls were busy having shows. Village Market hosted several East African artists’ exhibitions while Lavington Mall gave space to up-and-comers exhibiting. Carnivore, Lord Erroll and the Talisman among others opened up their walls for artists to exhibit their art.
But some of the largest group shows were hosted by the foreign cultural centres. The French, Germans, British, Americans, Russian and Danes all assisted Kenyan artists with exhibition space. Alliance Francaise was still the prime location for artists to exhibit. But still the British Institute of Eastern Africa was also quite active as they brought back their ‘Remains, Waste & Metonymy’ and initiated the cross-cultural showcase of food with ‘Kukolacho.’
The Americans annually support two major shows, one being the KMS Affordable Art Show at the National Museum, the other the ISK Friends of the Arts (FOTA) exhibition, both of which attract substantial art-loving audiences. The Germans’ Goethe Institute also hosted a number of exhibitions while Heinrich Boell Foundation launched the 2019 Kenya Arts Diary featuring an exhibition of artists’ works which were featured in the Diary.
And while the GoDown Art Centre ended the year by moving artists working there out while it’s involved in renovating a new art sart space, another art centre was being born upcountry at Tafaria Castle where George Waititu also runs artist residencies for adventurous Kenyans.
Finally, the clearest sign of the vibrancy of Kenyan art is seeing how every major gallery was fully booked throughout the year with shows by everyone from veteran artists like Yony Waite and Magdalene Odondo to Kamwathi, Abusharia, and artists from Wajukuu, Maasai Mbili and Karen Village.
The one major loss of 2018 was the demise of the inimitable Jak Katarikawe.
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Jak Katarikawe was a beloved East African artist who wasn’t just a painter of allegorical landscapes of Ugandan rural life. He was also a charming storyteller who’d hold his audience, (be it a client, longtime patron or friend) rapt as he interpreted the stories he had just painted. He’d always tell his tales with a twinkle in his eye as his characters, be they elephants or actual human beings, were often involved in [some sort of] illicit love affair, the kind he might have known first-hand back home in Uganda, before he came to Kenya in the late 1970s.
Jak didn’t arrive in Nairobi until he was nearly forty years old, or thereabouts. He was never sure of the year and month in which he was born, but he approximated it at 1938. That means that when he passed on October 19th, Jak would have spent the same numbers of years living in Kenya as he did in Uganda.
Yet as Jak grew less capable of painting the whimsical way he had done for a good forty years, producing brilliant and beautiful artworks that went into public institutions and private collections all over the world, he refused to ‘go home’ to Uganda. Despite having pumped a large portion of the revenues he had made from his paintings into constructing his family home in Kigezi, Southwestern Uganda, he no longer seemed to identify with the land of his forefathers. Kenya is where he had become King of contemporary East African art in the 1980s and 1990s. So in spite of his weakening condition and his difficulty paying his rent, Jak remained in the flat on Forest Avenue (now Wangari Maathai Blvd.) until the very end.
Until he passed on October 19th, Jak was 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 painting. He is also one of the first whose works were exhibited abroad, in Europe and the USA.
Jak’s legendary status was confirmed the same day he died, 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 flat to cook for him since Jak’s wife Florence was back in Uganda. Friends had tried to get him to accompany her home as he’d built a house for the family in Kigezi. Yet he refused.
He died while on route to the 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 paintings that invariably had an enchanting narrative to back up his artwork. Unfortunately, in his latter days, Jak was better known as a beggar who was frequently almost booted from his flat by an angry landlord who was only appeased when one of the artist’s longtime patrons stepped in at the last minute to ensure that Jak wasn’t tossed out on the street. They would pay his rent, including the arrears.
A few months before he passed, Jak was offered the means to go home to Kigezi with all his luggage and the remnants of his illustrious career. Alan set aside a substantial chunk of money to assist Jak to enjoy his last days in the comfort of his own Ugandan home. Yet he rejected that idea as well.
Jak never had a chance to go to school since his polygamous father had retired by the time he was born, the last born of the old man’s youngest wife. But Jak had natural talent. Plus his mother was artistic. Jak once recalled how she used to paint lovely designs in ash all around her mud and wattle hut as a means of attracting the old man to come for supper at her home. In an interview with ‘The Nairobi Times’ in the early 1980s, Jak also remembered how he was inspired by the colorful stained glass windows of the nearby church. He said the windows had shown him the value of brilliant translucent colors and the storytelling power of art.
Jak’s big break came after he was hired to be a driver for David Cooke, the Makerere University professor who found his sketches stashed in the boot of his car. Professor Cook could see that Jak had talent which he felt should be nurtured. So he arranged for him to be mentored by Professor Sam Ntiru, who at the time was head of Makerere’s Art Department and a leading Tanzanian artist.
After spending some time at Makerere, Jak had his first solo exhibition in 1966 at the Uganda National Theatre. It was like a coming of age for him. He now realized he was truly an artist. But like so many Ugandans who had to migrate to Kenya due to the political turmoil in his country, Jak moved to Nairoi in the mid-1970s. He initially worked and stayed with the Tanzanian sculptor and painter Elimo Njau, who as co-founder of Paa ya Paa Art Centre had set up visiting artists’ studios where refugees like Jak found a safe haven in which to work. Subsequently, Jak exhibited at Alliance Francaise and Gallery Watatu. He also worked closely with Nani Croze and Dr Eric Krystal in the 1980s when they were organizing artists’ workshops to create works reflecting Eric’s priority of family planning. Jak produced some of his most memorable paintings during that time.
Jak was already established when the late Ruth Schaffner bought Gallery Watatu in 1985 from Yony Waite, the Guam-born American artist who co-founded Watatu with the late Robin Anderson and David Hart. Ruth quickly took Jak under her wing and soon became his mentor, mother-figure, accountant and bank. She took his art worldwide, particularly to West Germany and the US where she owned two galleries in Los Angeles and sold his oil paintings like hotcakes.
Jak, who had never been to school and had only learned how to sign his name from Dr Cook, grew increasingly reliant on Ruth. There is little doubt that Ruth made a fortune from Jak’s artworks, but since he didn’t keep his own accounts, nor did he know how much his artworks were sold for overseas, no one will ever know the kind of commission Ruth the art dealer made from Jak’s paintings.
What we do know is that Jak was perfectly happy painting in his spacious rented rooms upstairs at the Paradise Hotel on Tom Mboya Street. But Ruth convinced him the neighborhood was so ‘dangerous’ that he needed to move. She shifted him to the most expensive flats in Nairobi, the Norfolk Apartments just next to the historic hotel. She paid his rent out of his earnings which undoubtedly contributed to the penury he incurred in his latter days.
But once Ruth passed on in 1986, Jak refused to move. He continued to pay the rent despite the cramped quarters she had moved him into. Without her regular sales of his art, Jak had very little revenue and thus, his financial problems began immediately upon Ruth’s death.
Jak never recovered from Ruth’s passing. He went into mourning and never got over his grief. It wasn’t assuaged by Ruth’s husband, the Ivorian counsel Adama Diawara who took over the gallery after Ruth was gone. When the Ghanaian journalist, Osei Kofi took over the gallery for Diawara, he held an exhibition for Jak around 2007. He shared the limelight with Sane Wadu and Wanyu Brush. But even that didn’t shake Jak out of the doldrums he’d fallen into after losing his beloved Ruth.
Ruth’s death also had a profound effect on his painting. Jak could never reactivate his effortless style of visual storytelling. Despite being pestered for years by art collectors from all over the world who frequently came personally to his Forest Road flat (where he finally moved to after having no choice) to buy his art, he could never regain his creative edge. He soon exhausted his supply of the paintings that expressed the ‘old Jak’. Nonetheless, any time one of his older paintings has gone up for auction, the prices have soared. Many people believe Jak’s art will only accrue in value over time, just as it did for other artists who died poor, such as Vincent Van Gogh and even Rembrandt. But now their paintings are valued as many millions of whatever currency you prefer
Jak will primarily be remembered for the luminous artworks he created between the 1970s and 1990s. But to his friends, he’ll be remembered as the sweet-spirited gentleman whose skill in visual storytelling was sublime.
Jak was buried quietly at his Kigezi home on October 28th, just a week after he passed. Tributes to him continue to pour in on social media. And many Kenyan artists are still waiting to hold a memorial service for Jak, yet they respect the wishes of the family who wanted their father buried quietly without fanfare. Fortunately, his art has already made him an immortal and he will always be considered one of East Africa’s finest artists.