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Yony’s Story Snake is still relevant today

Yony Waite and her hand-painted chair at One Off Gallery. PHOTO | COURTESY
Yony Waite and her hand-painted chair at One Off Gallery. PHOTO | COURTESY 

One Off Gallery has been mounting exceptional exhibitions throughout the year, featuring exquisite artworks by everyone from Peter Elungat, James Mbuthia, Peter Ngugi and Peterson Kamwathi.

Others include Beatrice Wanjiku, Shabu Mwangi, both Chelenge and Naomi van Rampelberg and Timothy Brooke, whose show just closed.

But for me, the crowning glory of Carol Lees’ curatorial powers is best seen in her current showcase of Yony Waite’s collaborative collection of conceptual artworks which the co-founder of Gallery Watatu created over decades with rural women from all over Kenya.

Specifically, Yony worked with women from Athi River – where her Wildebeeste Workshop was originally born – to Lamu Island where she has another Wildebeeste Workshop gallery, to Kitengela where she has trained talented Maasai women to stitch not only with beads but with other colourful elements.

Fresh message

Together, they have created everything from wall hangings, waist coats and vests to interactive banners and hand-stitched “paintings”, originally part of her “Story Snake.”

The Story Snake is more than 20 years old, yet its message is as fresh today as it was back then, given that world leaders are currently meeting in Paris to discuss the same issue – climate change.

But back in 1991 when Yony first proposed her idea of creating a collaborative environmental awareness banner to the Rockefeller Foundation, the issue wasn’t new.

But the idea of working with indigenous African women to translate their views on the environment into amazing works of art was utterly innovative.

Yony doesn’t dwell on the way her Story Snake gives a “voice to the voiceless” but that’s exactly what it does. She simply asked women to draw whatever they would miss if it disappeared from their lives completely.

Then after they drew that one thing – be it a river, the sun, the wildlife around their homes or in one case, one woman drew a mosque – Yony embellished their drawings a bit and then gave them materials with which to beautify them.

Artistic eye

She gave them everything from needles and embroidery thread to colourful beads, sequins, cowry shells, and even scraps of satin and velvet which they applied lavishly under Yony’s artistic eye.

They also worked from home since many of them were mothers with families to attend to, and for them, Yony’s work was the only way they could earn while also doing their unpaid domestic chores.

Yony then applied the finishing touches, using paints to enhance certain features of the art, after which she affixed each piece to a gigantic banner which initially went to Rio de Janeiro to the 1992 Climate Change Conference.

There it was marched all over the city and then displayed strategically for all to see.

Since then the Story Snake has travelled from Japan and Europe to North and South America where the amazingly artful voice of Yony and the Lamu women has been heard visually.

Many of the individual pieces from the Story Snake are in the exhibition which Yony’s entitled “Goddess in the Details” – aptly named not only because nearly all the works are created by women but also because their meticulously detailed work is stunning.

More than that, I would say it’s comparable to the exquisite medieval tapestries hand-stitched by church people many centuries ago and now preserved in Western museums like the Cloisters in New York City where they are considered priceless works of art.

For me, much of Goddess in the Details is conceptual art at its finest since the works reveal much about Yony’s politics which she blends so beautifully with her art.

And not only her environmental activism is apparent; her feminism is implied in the giant interactive banner that she created two years back for the global “Billion Women Rising” event held in Uhuru Park.

The banner calls on the public to think as they are asked to write in response to her colorful query: what do you think when you hear: WOMAN?

That banner is actually what Yony calls a work in progress, which is why she invited friends who attended the recent opening at One Off to take a magic marker and write their own response.

But besides the collection being conceptual, several of her multi-metered tapestries are purely abstract.

They are also hand-stitched by the women using Yony’s silk-screen fabrics and creating incredibly detailed designs which Yony finishes off with paints

A few of Yony’s paintings are also in the show, but only as functional artworks, such as her whimsical cushioned armchair and the triptych-like seven-foot screen suitably named Goddess in the Details.

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