Women artists share new skills


Women artists display batik art at The GoDown in Nairobi on May 1st, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Young Kenyan women artists had a richly rewarding week at the Rika Artists Residency and Workshop run by Dream Cona, the arts community launched by Ticah (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) in 2017.

The residency had run from April 25 through May 2 at the GoDown Art Centre.

Words like amazing, enriching, awesome, and inspirational were among the terms used by the women to describe their experiences at the training, according to workshop host and mentor Patrick Mukabi who ran the daily sessions.

The seven-day training culminated last Sunday with an exhibition of all the items created by the women. The 26 women had pieces to hang, especially colourful batiks, the technique they had learned from Ngeche artist Chain Muhandi, who said he had made his living for years selling his batiks before he became a full-time painter.

Kenyatta University students like Wanjiru ‘Shee’ Kimathi and Teresa Obiri were also keen on an encaustic painting which they and the group were shown by Smoke art specialist Evanson Kang’ethe halfway through the residency.

“We loved the idea of working with wax pencils and heat as a new way of painting,” says Shee who normally specialises in weaving and woodcut printmaking. Both Shee and Teresa are currently ‘attached’ through Kenyatta University to the GoDown-based artist Peterson Kamwathi.

“Wax was the mainstay of our week’s work,” says Eric Menya, who as Rika co-curator with Suzanne Mieke Wambua has organised all the Rikas.

“Both batik and encaustic artwork with wax,” says Eric. “But so did the wax casting that sculptor Kevin Oduor shared during his day with the women,” he adds.

A few of the castings went on display on Sunday as were the sculpture of Wanjiku Nderitu, body jewellery of Sharon Wendo, fashion design of Eunice Ayako, photography of Nduta Kariuki, and music provided by musicians, Nyatiti player Judith Bwire and guitarist-singer Barbara Guantai who serenaded the women throughout the week.

“The idea was to bring women artists involved in a variety of genres together to have them work as a Rika,” Eric told BDLife that multiple generations were also included.

“We mostly looked for students [which he found through BIFA, Kenyatta University, and Kenya Youth Empowerment Programme],” he continues.

But he also invited women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, so there was representation from several epochs of the ever-expanding Kenyan contemporary art scene.

The group did not spend much time exploring the question of why so few Kenyan women have appeared in public spaces, such as the galleries, which are invariably male-dominated.

But they were encouraged during the training to be more assertive and to claim more of the public domain since that public is where their prospective collectors and clients will come from.

Women speakers also shared pearls of insight and experience.

They included Joy Mboya, founder-mother of The GoDown, painter Tabitha wa Thuku and sculptor Maggie Otieno, two of Kenya’s veteran women artists, artist-gallerists Rahab Njambi Tani of Banana Hill Art Gallery and Phillda Njau of Paa ya Paa Art Centre, one a painter, the other a retired professional photographer.

During their one trip outside the GoDown, the women managed to visit both Banana Hill and Paa ya Paa. At Banana, they met both Rahab and her fellow artist and spouse Shine Tani, the founding parents of the gallery.

Then at Paa ya Paa, they found Phillda and the acclaimed sculptor, painter, and muralist Elimo Njau, 89, who co-founded it back in 1965, creating Kenya’s first African-owned art gallery.

The fact that this Rika was the first women’s art residency that TICAH has overseen since the Trust was started by Mary Ann Burris back in the latter days of the last century is surprising. But the women participants expressed the hope it would not be the last.

Each woman shared her appreciation for what she had gained during the seven-day sojourn. They all said their gratitude wasn’t just for the skills they had acquired, but also for the friendships created and cemented like the solid substance Kevin Oduor made as to the base of his wax castings.

“In the past, we have had Rika workshops in everything from sculpture, painting, and printmaking to mental health,” says Eric who is a practicing artist himself.

“The women’s Rika took some time to warm up, but by Sunday we saw solid bonding among them,” he adds.