Taabu Munyoli wasn’t at the recent opening of her exhibition, ‘In Good Hands’ when it opened last week at one of the new exhibition sites in Westlands, known simply as Shelter.
“I was in Venice,” Taabu tells BDLife casually, not bothering to mention that she was attending the 59th Venice Biennale, courtesy of her mentor and part-time employer.
We are standing outside her studio at Kobo Trust where she works from Thursdays through Saturday nights.
“I’ve discovered that even when the job is just part-time, I have to maximise the little time I have for my own work,” she says.
Not that she doubts the wisdom of taking on a part-time job, especially as she is now assisting an artist whom she respects, esteems, and is grateful every day to be working for and learning from.
But she is also involved in creating several series of new works of her own and hopes to have a solo exhibition early next year.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that her ‘boss’ was correct in suggesting she would benefit from being at the Biennale in Venice if for no other reason than the exposure she would get by being out of the country, in Europe, and attending one of the most important collections of global exhibitions renowned all over the world.
Nonetheless, Taabu was keen to get back to Kenya, to get to work on her ‘Black Hair’ series and pursue a series of portraits reflecting on the life of her own amazing mum, Rosemary.
She was also happy to get back to work for her mentor, a woman who has had a profound impact on Taabu’s perspective on so many things.
“I definitely have learned to see things in a different light, from a deeper perspective,” she says. But when asked to be more specific about what she does for her boss, she becomes reticent.
“What I can say is that she came to my studio to see how my art is progressing, and she advised me to do more sketching. To sketch every day irrespective of whatever else was going on in my life,” she adds, admitting that it hasn’t always been easy to sustain that sort of discipline.
But she’s seen it in her mentor’s manner of work and is grateful to be called to emulate her.
Her boss is without a doubt Kenya’s most renowned visual artist. She has ‘made history’ many times, ever since she became the first Kenyan visual artist to attend an Ivy League School.
Yale University is the same one attended by everyone from Meryl Streep to Hillary and Bill Clinton to Kenya’s own Kimani Njogu. And even Ngugi wa Thiong’o was a lecturer there.
She’s won countless awards, been exhibited all over the world, had books written about her art, and even been selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to be the first sculptor to fill the niches in the front entrance of the Museum with the art of her choice.
She created the most amazing sculptures and set such a high bar for anyone to come after her that the Met has had the challenge to find anyone as versatile as her after her time was up for her art to occupy those privileged spaces.
She has been working for the woman for the past two years. But just as quietly as her boss came back to Kenya and established her home with her family in Karen, so Taabu has been low-key about telling people what she does during the early days of her week.
Taabu means to explore the issue of black hair from a historical perspective.
“I want to contrast the significance of women’s hair during precolonial times and now, since it is very different,” she says.
She has had to reference South African sources and has already begun creating paintings using both an image-transfer technique and acrylic paint.
At the same time, she is inspired by her own mother’s history and she wants to create more works around Rosemary’s colourful career in politics in the early days of Kenyan independence when very few women were entering the political sphere. But her mother was courageous enough to do it.
“She didn’t win the election she fought for,” but she tried and she still has a voice in the community that people admire,” Taabu says.
Her strength has clearly influenced her daughter who is also independent, and progressive in her own quiet way.
*Story has been revised.