Yony Waite: Activist artist who opened up space for indigenous Africans

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Yony Waite is one of the most important environmental and visual artists of Kenya, East Africa, and beyond the borders of the mind as well as geography. In fact, Yony ‘emerged’ as a citizen of the world long before she came to Kenya. Her passing on will touch the hearts of many who loved and admired her as an artist and activist for the planet.

She was born in Hollywood, raised on the island of Guam, and trained artistically both at the University of California, Berkeley, and Japan where she apprenticed under sagacious Master painters. By the time she arrived in Kenya after spending time in Somalia with family, she was already a practising professional artist. She initially came as a tourist. But then, I think she was grabbed by the land, the wildlife, and the ocean.

She was briefly married to David Hopcraft and lived on the family ranch at Athi River. Fortunately, a family settlement enabled her to stay at the ranch even after the couple split up. The ranch became a home base for her when she wasn’t staying in Lamu where she established her second home, an old four-story Swahili house, not far from the Lamu Museum.

Lamu is also where she set up her Wildebeeste Workshop, held exhibitions and ran trainings in print-making on her old printing press. She also designed projects with Lamu women groups. “I would work with her and the women when I went to see her,” Yony’s sister-in-law, Linda Benvenuto told the BD Life. “Together they’d produce wonderful wall hangings that Yony would sell and bring the revenue back to the women,” Linda explains.

But Yony would never remain in one place for long. She was always on the move, always a hippie at heart from the sixties. She, like so many of her generation, was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road which was all about a band of buddies who traversed the US, celebrating their freedom with jazz, poetry, and ‘mind-expanding’ substances.

But to travel, Yony needed funds, not just to travel, but to open up spaces to exhibit her art. At the time, there were few galleries. So in 1969, she and the British artist, Robin Anderson and designer David Hart started Gallery Watatu.

“I never intended to run a business [at Watatu],” Yony said in words captured during her exhibition opening with Theresa Musoke and Tabitha wa Thuku at Circle Art Gallery several years back.

Linda Benvenuto, Yony's sister-in-law, next to Yony's 6ft tall four-panelled screen in Karen, Nairobi, on January 22, 2024. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

She could have been talking about why she was happy to sell Watatu to Ruth Schaffner in 1985. The other two Watatu founders had left long before, and Yony didn’t want the responsibility, so she was happy to hand over her gallery as long as she could have a permanent foothold for her art at the space.

But years before she left Watatu to Ruth, Yony was advocating for indigenous Africans to exhibit at Watatu. The ones that did included everyone from Ancent Soi and Jak Katarikawe to Etale Sukuro and Theresa Musoke.

But apart from her roles as founder of two art galleries and artist producing paintings that project some of the most enchanting semi-abstract portraits of animals in the wild, Yony will be remembered for her passionate positions on war, peace, and the power brokers who benefit off of war at the expense of innocent civilians’ lives.

For instance, Yony felt so strongly about the American invasion of Iraq that she sacrificed her identity as an American citizen in protest against the Iraq war. She subsequently became a Kenyan citizen.

Up to the end, Yony refused to ‘die gracefully’. Instead, she was ‘on the road’, still afflicted with her third bout of pneumonia, and still insisting on flying to Lamu to tie up some loose ends. She then took buses to reach Mombasa, where she went to hospital but then got on a train back to Nairobi where she went straight to Nairobi Hospital. And when she was reminded that she had no will but had said she wanted to leave something to her workers, Linda says, “She wrote on the back page of the book she was rereading,” It turns out, the book was Kerouac’s On the Road!

Yony passed on January 13, 2024, a day we’ll commemorate from now on. Her spirit is immortal, so as much as we grieve her demise, we celebrate the beauty, light, wisdom, and joy she brought to us in her art and in her life.

A small collection of Yony’s paintings will be at One Off Gallery from January 27, 2024.

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