When women artists come out from the shadows


Rahab Shine with her village painting at Banana Hill Art Gallery, June 7, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

This is shaping up to be the year of Kenyan women artists. For so long, we wondered where they were since we knew they were there somewhere. And finally, this year, they have come forth to reveal some of their finest works.

First came the troika of Yony Waite, Tabitha wa Thuku, and Theresa Musoke at Circle Art Gallery.

Then came Caroline Mbirua, Esther Mukuhi, and Nayia Sitonik at the Karen Blixen Museum, followed by a show of the same trio at Banana Hill Art Gallery.

And now, coincidentally with the 30th-anniversary celebration of Banana Hill Gallery is the show entitled “Women’s Touch" with another triad of brilliant pioneering Kenyan women artists, Rahab Shine, Eunice Wadu, and Maggie Otieno.

All three have been working in their respective fields for years. But like so many talented women, they haven’t aggressively sought the limelight. Instead, Eunice has been teaching art to children in Naivasha with her illustrious hubby, Sane Wadu.

Rahab has been managing Banana Hill Gallery with hers, the equally important artist-gallerist Shine Tani. And Maggie has been based in Langata, sculpting mainly in metals and wood, and occasionally creating massive murals in various railway stations.

It was during the launch of the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute that Rahab and Eunice got to chatting about the need for an all-women’s exhibition.

“We talked about how women are the carriers of culture, yet our role seems to be forgotten,” Rahab told BDLife shortly after the exhibition opened. “As of now, we’re committed to claiming our rightful place side by side with the men. We won’t be forgotten anymore,” she added.

Agreeing to work together for such a women’s show, the two went back to their home studios and shifted into high gear preparing for their exhibition.

Shortly thereafter, Maggie Otieno arrived at Banana Hill Gallery with the Dream Kona Women’s Rika Art Project, and Rahab suggested she join the exhibition since she’s a veteran female sculptor.

It was serendipity that got the trio together. But it’s currently working beautifully on the ground at Banana Hill where there’s room enough for Rahab’s luscious landscapes, Eunice’s paintings and prints, and Maggie’s scrap-metal sculptures.

At first glance, one might think that Rahab’s paintings are repetitive since she frequently sticks with similar hues, with pastel blues matching Kenyan skies, pearl white for her fluffy white clouds, ochre brown matching the color of volcanic soil, and touches of yellow like the tips of acacia trees around Naivasha (renamed ‘Delamere’ in her art)

But if you take a second look, you will see that each painting is distinctive, deliberately expressive of Rahab’s photographic memory of myriad villages that have grown up between Banana Hill and Shine’s home village of Kiptanguanyi in Nakuru.

But even more interesting than the subtle differences between Rahab’s landscapes is first, the way she blends those colours into impressionistic fantasy lands filled with hills, valleys, and homesteads that leave you wondering what goes on inside them.

Eunice, like Rahab, has grown up around male painters from whom she’s gained inspiration to develop her own artistic skills. For Rahab, her evolution has been as an impressionistic landscape painter. For Eunice, it’s her woodcut prints that stand out in ‘Women’s Touch’.

Whether her prints are of birds, beggars, or babies with doting mothers, each one clearly reveals her development as a printmaker having real appeal.

And as for Maggie, her career as a sculptor took off in the early 2000s after coming under the influence of Elijah Ogira, one of Kenya’s finest sculptors. Initially, she worked in wood. But where she’s been a pioneering female is in her work welding metal scraps and shaping them into remarkable forms of metallic art.

One of her most stunning welded works in ‘Women’s Touch’ is entitled ‘Comfort’.

“I was asked by a friend to create a piece that might console someone who had lost a loved one, so I created ‘Comfort’,” Maggie told BDLife, referring to a sculpture that reminds me somewhat of sculptures by the renowned Romanian modernist sculptor, Constantin Brancusi.

His name might also come to mind if one sees the eight tall, slender, and shapely metallic totems that Maggie made especially after winning a commission to create sculptures for Garden City Mall’s front lawn. They are all uniquely her own, yet they echo the spirit of that great master sculptor.