He turned 80 last August but Elimo Njau is still going strong. He sprints around his compound at Paa ya Paa Arts Centre like a jack rabbit, enthused over life and the idea of seeing art in everything he does.
Mr Njau’s creativity isn’t confined to canvas or clay, media he taught at Makerere University and the University of Dar-es-Salaam before he came to Kenya in the late fifties, commissioned to cover the Fort Hall (Murang’a) Anglican Church walls with indigenous Christian iconography.
Mr Njau’s artistry extends all the way from Paa ya Paa Lane (newly named shortly before graffiti artists Swift Elegwa and Lionel Njuguna volunteered to cover his mabati front fence with brilliant colours and designs) to his herb garden from which he daily draws lemon grass, mint and other assorted herbs to make his special tea, just as his father Filipo did before him.
The big difference between him and his father is that his father’s herb garden was on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro while Mr Njau’s is on the outskirts of Nairobi, just off Kiambu road at Ridgeways.
In all humility, Mr Njau takes a touch of pride in proclaiming he’s still a subsistence farmer, as his family had been before him.
“We never went hungry then, nor do we now,” says he, referring to himself and his African American wife Phillda, who has been with him since the early 1970s, first as a professional photographer and volunteer from the Presbyterian Church who was keen to do research on Mr Njau’s Christian art.
Subsequently, she became his wife and now serves as the Paa ya Paa gallery’s archivist, curator and tour guide, taking visitors all around their three-acre compound.
Their Ridgeways home-cum-art centre was acquired from the Oxford University Press after the rents shot sky high on Koinange Street where Paa ya Paa first resided.
It served as the hub of cultural activity in the second half of the 1960s when it was frequented by the likes of Okot p Bitek, Philip Ochieng, James Ngugi (now Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and Hilary Ng’weno among other Nairobi notables.
Having endured decades of benign neglect even as the local Nairobi art world got inundated with Asian shopkeepers and expatriates from Europe and America who sought to make a quick buck off the art of “naïve” Africans, Mr Njau has seen countless artists, who once worked at Paa ya Paa get whisked off and subsequently “discovered” by expatriates out to seize control of the fledging field of East African art.
Fortunately, Mr Njau could never be classified as a fledgling or a naïve novice having come from Makerere’s prestigious Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art in Uganda where Trowel herself recommended the 24-year-old to paint the Murang’a murals back in 1958.
He returned to Uganda but came back to Kenya in the early 1960s, first to work as an assistant curator to Sir Mervin Sorsbie of Sorsbie Gallery and then, collaborating with a brilliant team of five other poets (Feroze Nowrojee, Jonathan Kariara, Terry Hirst, James Kangwana and Charles Lewis), he launched Kenya’s first indigenous African art centre, Paa ya Paa, which still stands today, an icon and evidence that expatriates did not “discover”, invent or construct East African art.
Yet his esteemed background has been as much a blessing as a curse for Mr Njau, whose artistic initiatives have elicited envy, jealousy and malice from various colonial and neocolonial corners, since his very existence serves to debunk the myth that expatriates fully dominate the Kenyan art world.
“If Elimo had lived in another country, where the arts were valued and understood, he’d be a rich man today,” said one Kenyan art lover.
Yet Mr Njau refutes the notion that he is not rich.
“I am rich in spirit; I’m surrounded by beauty and natural artistry,” he says pointing to Paa ya Paa’s lush green garden filled with banana clusters and avocado and eucalyptus trees.
“You know it was the coloniser who came here and planted eucalyptus trees because the land was swampy and the trees’ roots sucked up the water and then shot sky high, standing taller than all the indigenous trees.
“But whenever storms came and winds blew, it was always the eucalyptus trees that were the first to fall, since their roots are shallow and easily uprooted,” said Mr Njau, who remains a poet-philosopher who uses nature as an obvious metaphor for the conditions in Kenya’s art world.
Like exotic trees that seem to do so well while the sun is shining but are short-lived when times get tough, Mr Njau has seen the expatriates come and go, depending on which way the winds blow.
Living proof that the Kenyan art world wasn’t born yesterday, he is fully aware the eucalyptus are still around claiming to control most if not all of the local art world. But he finds solace among mainly the young artists who come faithfully to Paa ya Paa to be mentored by the master painter-sculptor of Ridgeways.
More important, his primary source of peace and spiritual nutrition is the Bible. It’s that life-sustaining power that he first learned from his father who was among the first Africans converted by German Lutherans.
Also a teacher, linguist and wise man, both father and son are like indigenous trees, deeply rooted and fully aware of who they are — free-spirited Africans unfettered by colonial bonds, who still serve as inspirations to those who seek an authenticity that’s enduring and impossible to quash.
That’s Elimo Njau, the richest man on Ridgeways, who still welcomes art lovers to Paa ya Paa where he, Phillda and an ex-priest Roger Sanchez, just recently restored ‘the ruins’ (which were destroyed by fire in 1998), renovating the gallery to its former glory.