Heritage

Artist paints his way to big cash with return of gallery

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Artist John Njenga next to his abstract painting on the post-election violence during the recent launch of Gallery Watatu. Photo/FREDRICK ONYANGO

John Njenga is a man who has lived to disown his name for the love of his job.

A professional artist who specialises in painting, Mr Njenga is popularly known as ‘Wanyu Brush’ in the art circles.

“Wanyu is a Kikuyu word that means I am yours so appreciate my work. I settled for the word together with brush, which signifies moving forward my career — brushing forward, literally,” he says.

And in what could be a dream fulfilled, Mr Njenga was the highest selling artist on the night of the re-launch of Gallery Watatu two weeks ago.

An Italian collector bought his painting titled Never, Never, Never Again based on post-election violence for Sh2 million — the highest price Mr Njenga has ever sold his work for in his 42 years of painting.

Before then, sales for his work ranged between Sh500,000 and Sh600,000.

The artist has personal experience with the violence. Members of his family in Molo underwent traumatic experiences during the mayhem.

This, he says, inspired him to do the piece. “I had the idea in mind since 2007 and I knew that I would work on something to highlight the ugly events that took place and offer lessons for the future,” he says.

However, Njenga says he might not achieve his aim to offer lessons drawn from the post-election violence through his work since the art collector will take the piece to his country — Italy.

He urges Kenyans and the government to embrace local art.

Mr Njenga says it would be more expensive to buy back our art works once in the hands of foreigners than if they are bought from local artists.

The artist has honed his skill over the years. Mr Njenga began painting in 1969 after he dropped out of secondary school due to financial constraints.

Before then, he had a keen interest in art and was fond of scribbling on the ground.

His mother often scolded and discouraged him as she sought to persuade him to pursue other careers that, according to her, pay well.

However, he persisted with his passion for painting.

And painting he did. So far, Mr Njenga has more than a thousand pieces to his name.

His work revolves around the same theme even though he can’t remember his first painting.

“I have always painted to bring out political and social issues in our society. I will soon release a painting to show the negative impact of the current political bickering on us,” he says.

However, Njenga expresses his disappointment saying Kenyans do no appreciate art.

He cites his attempt to engage in carving in the 1990s that went down the drain because it did not add much value to his work.

To survive in his career as an artist against all odds, Njenga seeks different locations to display and market his work.

Njenga’s paintings can be found in far flung places like a privately owned gallery in Atlanta in the US.

Other galleries with his work include those in Japan, Philadelphia (US), Austria and Kampala Museum, Uganda.

Goethe Institut, Ramoma Gallery, the French Cultural Centre and Gallery Watatu are the selling points for his works in Kenya.

The comeback of Gallery Watatu, once a favourite spot for art shoppers 40 years ago and whose fame went down with the death of its former manager Ruth Schaffner, is a relieve for artists like Njenga, Sane Wadu and Jak Katarikawe, all paint artists, among others who share a history with the gallery.

Gallery Watatu is the brainchild of artists Jony Waite, Robin Anderson and David Hart.

They handed over the gallery to the late Schaffner, who was a collector of post-war art.

“A gallery is well managed by a person with an interest in arts. This explains why the gallery thrived well when Schaffner was in charge,” says Njenga.

The gallery was established to create art and a platform for artists to display their work.

After her death in 1996, her husband, Adama Diawara, took charge.

However, the gallery lost its popularity amid management woes.

But Njenga is optimistic that artists would claim their place given the necessary support from the government and Kenyans.

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