It was quite a blow to the Kenyan art scene to lose two artists.
Ancent Soi, 88, passed on March 24 in his sleep while Edward Njenga left us the following Tuesday, March 29 while in the hospital for something that began as an injury to his thumb but spiralled into a challenge that finally deprived him of enjoying his centenary.
Soi the painter and Njenga the sculptor were pioneers in their respective fields. They have made immense contributions to the arts in Kenya, having mastered their media, message, and technique.
Their passing should inspire a deep commitment to establishing a National Art Gallery since they were concerned about their art not leaving the country.
They were keen to ensure that Kenyans ultimately appreciate the role of the arts in the country’s development. That was why Njenga consciously chose not to sell all of his sculptures.
He told BDLife often over the years that he wanted the bulk of his work to stay here for Kenyans to see. He even built lockable glass display cases for his terracotta figurines to be seen but not touched or taken out of a local context.
Njenga was far-sighted in this regard since so much of the subject matter that he created came out of his first-hand experience working as a social worker for many years in Eastleigh.
The characters that he created were mostly the poor, lame, infirm, and heavy-laden with child. That’s because he worked next to the Eastleigh Health Centre. He also sculpted vagabond pick-pockets and parking boys who scavenged for food from garbage bins.
Some of Njenga’s best work has already left the country. It was a terracotta installation reflecting the emergency and the mistreatment of detainees who were physically and psychologically abused by local home guards and spurred on by one British Army Officer overseeing the torture of squatting Africans.
Ancent Soi’s art also reflected the lives of local people, yet it feels far less political and more idyllic. Put another way, Soi’s characters are a mix of rural and urban folk while Njenga’s are mainly urbanites.
Soi’s paintings all contain narratives that revealed his storyteller side. His colours are bright, often psychedelic. And while he also specialised in landscapes that reflect the dry savannah plains of his Ukambani homeland, he often included animals that once roamed freely in his neighbourhood.
That was before the local population exploded and the conflict between animals and human-led to radical reductions in wildlife.
Thus, in both artists’ works, we can see remnants of an earlier time when the full effect of colonialism and globalisation was yet to be felt. His son Michael, who is also an awesome artist, says his father left behind hundreds of finished paintings that are still unsold. Soi left a legacy that needs to be preserved.
One hopes the families of both artists will hold retrospective exhibitions to allow Kenyans to see the greatness of the artists who are bound to be more fully recognised now that they are no longer with us, except in their art.
For instance, Vincent van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yet, today his art sells for millions and he is among the most renowned artists in the world.
Both Njenga and Soi deserve similar recognition. I for one feel privileged to have known them and witnessed their artistic evolution. They stand with the same honoured status as the late, great Kenyan sculptor Samwel Wanjau.