Sane Wadu is an honest man. He is also a laudable artist who came from Naivasha last weekend with his wife and fellow artist Eunice to participate in a programme organised by the new Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI).
He could hardly have absented himself when the event was all about him and his art. Or rather it was about marking the closing of a comprehensive exhibition about him entitled ‘I Hope So: Sane Wadu” and celebrating his 40 years of artistic practice.
As NCAI is in the process of preparing its next exhibition, the Institute also distinguished itself as being an exceptional kind of art institution, since it is rare for a gallery to hold an afternoon sit-down feast as a way of celebrating an artist and his or her creative efforts.
But as its founder, Kenyan-British artist, Michael Armitage, has often explained, the Institute is not a gallery so much as a not-for-profit institution that aims to embody the totality of Kenyan contemporary art, including its history and artistic roots.
So, what better place to begin than with one of Kenya’s first contemporary artists, Sane Wadu. But at the feast, Sane, in all honesty readily admitted, “When I reached Gallery Watatu in 1984, I saw art by people like Kaigwa [Gakunju], Fred Oduya, Theresa Musoke, Sukuro [Etale], and John Diang’a.”
“When I first brought my paintings to Gallery Watatu, I was told my style didn’t fit with theirs,” he told the Business Daily. And that was when I knew Sane was an honest man. He wasn’t claiming more than what he was at the time.
“I took my artwork home and decided to figure out what kind of art they were talking about,” he said.
It wasn’t until two years later after Ruth Schaffner came to Kenya and bought out the owners of the Gallery, its founder Yony Waite and Rhodia Mann. Yony was happy to relinquish ownership as she had been looking for someone to take over the business of running the gallery since it wasn’t her thing. Doing her art was and continues to be.
As soon as Sane came back to Watatu in 1986, he was immediately embraced by Ruth, and the rest is history. He paved the way for her to push what she saw as a ‘new trend’ in the global art world.
It was ‘primitive’ African art, she seemed to be saying since she didn’t want to show or support artists with sophisticated art education (though she made an exception with Kaigwa).
But she did see Kenyan art as something soon to be the ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary African art. And Sane would be on that edge!
That is why NCAI selected Sane and his 40-year career to be their premier exhibition and why they wanted to close it with a bang of a celebration and feast.
Sane, who had been doing art and crafts since primary school, decided after finishing high school education at Kinangari Secondary to be a teacher. But then he became a court clerk, and then went into acting and writing plays for a theatre group made up of his former students that performed in schools around the country.
“I was even in several Voice of Kenya [TV] shows,” he said. But then, in 1984 he met an old friend making a mural. When the friend finished the mural, Sane asked if he could use his left-over paints. Those are what he used to create the paintings [on plastic paper] that he first took to Watatu which got rejected.
But Sane persisted. He’d taken the rejection as a challenge to grow and develop his style. So, when he met Ruth, he was happy to take her advice and support and the opportunities that unfolded for him through working with the Gallery.
It also turned out that Sane and Eunice were living at the time in Ngecha, a village that had already begun to generate a lot of talented up-and-coming artists. Ruth took an interest in all of them, so much so that she planned to construct a Ngecha Arts Centre. But Kuona Trust got crafted using her blueprints instead. That’s a long story.
Sadly, Ruth passed on the following year, but Sane and Eunice had already established their own Sane Wadu Trust and moved to Naivasha where they now run a children’s art programme. They also played a key role in assisting curators... and her assistant… in assembling a multimedia retrospective of his life and art.