The tributes came pouring in as well-wishers warmed up last Saturday afternoon during ’s 90th birthday celebrations. The warmth was partially due to the sun finally coming out. But it was also the feeling of mutual appreciation for the man who had inspired all these strangers to come together.
More than once during the day, Elimo was acknowledged as being the father of Kenyan art. Yet he has never accepted that claim since he is sensitive to national distinctions. He is a soulful ‘father’ to many artists and art lovers who have been to Paa ya Paa gallery where Elimo is the managing director.
But he is not the sole founding father of Kenya’s first indigenous African-owned gallery. Nor is he even a Kenyan since he was born on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro where his father was a Swahili teacher and Bible scholar.
Paa ya Paa impact
“Paa ya Paa was formed by six of us,” recalls Elimo who started the centre in 1965 with five other poets. There was the Kenyan broadcaster James Kangwana, the novelist Jonathan Kariara, the lawyer-activist Pheroze Nowrojee, the British artist and founder of Kenyatta University’s art department Terry Hirst, and Charles Lewis, Oxford University Press publisher.
But it is Elimo who has kept Paa ya Paa alive and active all of these years. Or rather it has been he and his African American wife, Phillda who have kept the centre running even after others declared the gallery dead and gone.
There is no doubt Paa ya Paa has struggled over the years. Particularly in the late 90s when a big portion of the gallery burnt down. Nearly all the wooden sculptures were lost as was the entirety of Paa ya Paa’s library and precious archive.
Elimo himself almost lost his life after dashing back into the flames as he tried to collect some of his most important pieces before they went up in smoke.
The love that Paa ya Paa had already generated was evident at that time when spontaneous fundraising efforts emerged overnight which enabled the Njau’s to construct a simple iron-sheet structure atop the remains of their original home.
That home had previously belonged to Oxford University Press but was graciously bought for Kenyan artists by Elimo’s secondary school teacher out of appreciation for what his former student was doing for the arts in Africa.
Many of the well-wishers who came for Elimo’s 90th were from a younger generation. That includes many of the African-American women who organised the birthday party for Elimo, and also for Phillda who they regard as their sister and who they lovingly support.
Some neighbours came and recalled listening on Sunday mornings to Phillda rehearsing with her band, the Bush Bach’s, made up of Kenyan musicians, including percussionists, and her classical piano.
There were artists from around the region, among them Ethiopians, Nigerians, South Africans, and Tanzanians as well as Kenyans who came to celebrate the Mzee. One musician even sang the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I did it my way’, making it clear that he appreciated Elimo’s independent spirit and courage to live his life as he chose to do.
Long before Elimo got to Kenya, he was raised by a large family filled with many siblings and a father who was a Swahili teacher steeped in the Bible. Elimo graduated from the University of Dar es Saleem. He then went on to teach both there and at Makerere University in Kampala.
It was at Makerere that he worked closely with Margaret Trowell who launched the school’s Department of Fine and Applied art. It was the first art department established in East Africa and the font from which Kenya’s earliest artists emerged, artists like Gregory Maloba and Rosemary Karuga.
Elimo might have remained at Makerere to teach and create sculptures, which were his greatest joys. But then he got involved with creating Christian art first at Saint Francis Chapel in Kampala, Uganda and then at the Anglican Church in Murang'a.
After that, he worked briefly with Ezekiel Mphalele, the South African writer who came to Kenya and started the Chemi Chemi Art Centre. But then he went on to work as the deputy director at the Sorsbie Gallery in Muthaiga.
All this experience is what eventually led to his collaborating with the five to launch Paa ya Paa (meaning ‘Antelope Rising’), and running international workshops for many years.
The main theme of Elimo’s 90th was gratitude to Baba for inspiring so many by his example.