Banana Hill Art Gallery 30th anniversary


Artists gathered to celebrate 30 years of Banana Hill Art Gallery, on June 18, 2022. PHOTO | COURTESY

There were good vibrations had by all who had come to Banana Hill Art Gallery last weekend to celebrate 30 years since the Gallery was founded. It has risen out of ashes wrought by feuding artists in a tussle for power and assumed sums of cash that actually didn’t exist.

But isn’t that what wars are often fought over, namely imagined riches that narcissists believe must belong to themselves, but in fact, are only delusions in mad men’s mortal minds.

In any case, the Banana Hill Gallery came into being after the dust settled, and the children ran away. These were the young men who believed they were entitled to names and numbers that others had earned but which they felt entitled to as well.

The one who founded Banana Hill Art Studio was Shine Tani, a former street acrobat who learned to paint from an older brother and discovered Watatu Gallery while doing somersaults in City Centre. Shine had the guts to walk into Watatu one day with a few scraps of paper on which he had made his first marks as an aspiring painter.

They were rejected by Ruth Schaffner, the new owner of Watatu. But as she was interested in meeting more aspirants, she gave him pens, paint, and a brush for him to go home with.

“After a year and a half, my first painting sold,” Shine told BDLife a few days after the Saturday celebrations. It was after he had made a few sales and attracted several relatives to follow his lead that he met Rahab of Lari village, who fell madly for her new artist friend.

The two of them would  romantically run away together (she was just 15) and then build their new home, a tiny house in Banana Hill.

In those early years, their house turned into a commune where would-be artists came to learn how to become real-life painters like Shine. Being a generous and humble man, this patient patriarch had no problem sharing his skills and introducing a few of them to Mrs Schaffner, the German economist and Los Angeles gallerist who aimed to ‘invent’ East African art in her own image and likeness.

But as soon as Shine’s studio gained a bit of attention from the media, donors announced they might consider giving Shine funds to engage in this social project or that one. That is when the trouble began.

Funds in Shine’s pockets were only a rumor, nothing more. But the youngsters sought it, sight unseen. That is when Shine decided to pull out of the commotion. Rahab and he would do their own thing and leave the others to war as they wished.

Thereafter, the commotion died. So did the artworks as the other young men couldn’t yet stand on their own. This is when the goats and the sheep got sorted, and the better half went back to Shine and asked him to start his own gallery. They would like to join.

And so those who were disgruntled had no choice. Left alone, they were soon to recall that the one who had given them their first paint brush was Shine at the Studio. By then, the Banana Hill Gallery was born with Shine the manager and CEO, and Rahab his Deputy.

And so, it has been up to now. It was a celebration of them last weekend that brought together in Kenyan artists from all over town. They came from Ngecha and Kuona Trust, Karen Village and the GoDown, Alliance Francaise, Dust Depot, and Paa ya Paa. Even the chief curator from Nairobi National Gallery, Lydia Galavu, showed up to share the good will.

And the day wouldn’t have been complete without representation from the Sane Wadu Foundation. Sane and Eunice were among the first to arrive, having come all the way from Naivasha.

And even the new Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) gave the Gallery a nod. But the day was historic not just because it brought so many Kenyan artists together. It was also the moment when Elimo Njau and Shine Tani met. 

“I’ve never been to Banana Hill Gallery before,” confessed Elimo, 89. He also didn’t know how much he had inspired Shine and so many other Kenyan artists who respected Elimo for being among the first Africans to co-found an art gallery.

Paa ya Paa was started in 1965 by six men and women, among them Jonathan Kariara, Terry Hirst and Elimo. Shine was only the second African to start an art gallery of his own.