A giant of Kenyan creative genius passed on two weeks ago on September 25th when one of our greatest East African sculptors Samwel Wanjau died from a stroke at his home in Mukurueini, Nyeri County.
Wanjau is best remembered for his 12ft Mau Mau Freedom Fighter which he created out of reinforced cement and steel wire after being commissioned by the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
“It was meant to stand at the entrance of Parliament Buildings, but when Njonjo saw it, he rejected it on the spot,” Wanjau had told me when we met in the mid-1980s at Gallery Watatu.
“He was never paid by the government for his efforts,” remembered his first-born son Jackson who, with his younger brother Anthony, are both sculptors following in their father’s footsteps.
As Wanjau ‘s full-sized Freedom Fighter together with a miniature of the same have never left Paa ya Paa Gallery since it was there that Wanjau constructed both sculptures.
Wanjau had made his way to Paa ya Paa in the mid-1960s when it was still situated at Sadler House on Koinange Street. He had previously worked in Gikomba among Akamba wood carvers until he heard about the one indigenous African art gallery in town.
“He had grown tired of carving antelope, and wanted to develop as a sculptor,” says Njau who encouraged Wanjau to start exhibiting his own artwork both at Sadler House and at Elimo Njau’s other gallery in Tanzania.
That was in 1966 and from then until the mid-1980s, Wanjau worked closely with PYP, especially after the Art Centre shifted to Ridgeways and Njau offered him an ‘open-air studio’ where Wanjau would come from Kangemi and work daily for more than a decade. During that time, he would travel to Tanzania and Sweden with his art. His works were also exhibited in Canada, the UK as well as all over Nairobi.
But in the mid-1980s after Ruth Schaffner bought Gallery Watatu, and all of Wanjau’s available art.
“She bought from us at ‘throw-away prices’ and then resold his work for much more than we did,” recalls Njau.
Wanjau left Paa ya Paa soon after that, leaving Schaffner to manage his sales and his exhibitions. By the time she died in 1996, Wanjau had already moved back to Mukurueini, but not before Schaffner had markeed his art in the US, Germany and Kenya.
Wanjau did not die a rich man, despite his sculptures being among the most highly-prized artwork produced by any Kenyan. His legacy continues with his two sons, Jackson and Anthony whose sculptures can be found at both Kuona Trust and One Off Gallery.