When the sun rises on Deighton Downs in Laikipia County, it creates the illusion that it is making its way from the north, scaling the windward slopes of Mt Kenya before blinking over the snow-capped peaks to peer at the 20-acre property where George Waititu, an art collector who wears many hats, has transformed his childhood fantasy into a picturesque dream.
Like arrows from William Tell’s quiver, the rays of the sun shoot their way into the makeshift studio that sits in one corner of the property better known for its hospitality establishment, the Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge.
Like a spray-gun artist, the sun splashes its golden rays on the canvases hanging on the wall, all of which are in various stages of completion.
On one end are the voluptuous paintings of horses that Patrick Mukabi drew not so long ago. He does with the gracious animals — including the Percheron horses which in Kenya are only to be found in Tafaria — what he does with his paintings of full-figured women.
He brings out their strength with the bold contours that he paints into their curvaceous bodies. Many of the artworks, including one of the outstanding portraits of a horse that I have yet come across, are still yearning for his final touch, but George assures me that Mukabi will be back to ensure this is done.
In another corner is a giant twin sculpture by Guanzu, one side depicting a strong woman, her back straight, her demeanour defiant, a load of firewood riding on her head. No doubt, she is going home to be useful.
The other is a man whose torso is submerged, whose left hand is reaching for the ground and his right clutching a beer bottle that is draining its life-sapping content into his mouth. This is an allegory of the social problems and gender divide that excessive consumption of alcohol has spawned.
Next to the twin installation will be a plaque with cautionary proverbs to which the public will be invited to add their own pearls of wisdom.
“This is a depiction of what the artist experienced when he spent time with the local community during his residency,” says George, who has played patron to more than 34 artists since Tafaria opened its doors to the public exactly seven years ago. The artwork will later this month be installed on a plinth at a nearby nursery school, past which many of the villagers walk on their way to run errands.
The very first of the artists-in-residence was Kevin Oduor, a sculptor with Kuona Trust, who worked on the “Thuraku” artworks that adorn part of the wall of the Tafaria castle. Although he says in a plaque that the artwork was inspired by his childhood experiences, when safari ants would strike with a vengeance in the dead of the night, it is not lost on a keen observe that the term assumed a political undertone during the 2017 presidential election.
He is also the man who sculptured “The Hand of Paradise”, an organic installation that is fed by the plastic waste generated at the hotel.
When it was her turn to take up a month-long artist’s residency at the property in June this year, Anne Ntinyari Mwiti, took up three different projects. The first, based on a romantic idea, is “The Love Locks”, a metal gazebo on which lovers can lock their love with a padlock before throwing away their keys.
Her idea was to make Tafaria what postmodernists would call “a site of romantic engagement” by making lovers lock their most precious moments on the grounds of the castle. The idea was to make the padlocks look like low-hanging fruits.
“Flowers will grow all around it,” she said.
And once the couple throws their key in the hole next to the installation, it will become impossible to find the keys, meaning that the two lovers are locked in love for life.
Anne’s other project was a series of paintings depicting various aspects of life in and around the Tafaria neighbourhood. In all, she worked on 35 pieces of different sizes. All were characterised by a slit-eye-view of the world, with deep frames in bold colours on the top and bottom of each painting and the representation running parallel in the middle like they do in the movies.
The effect of this is to give the view an impression that he or she is part of the landscape, standing at a vantage point looking in and to highlight the fact that the audience, like the artist, “is isolated in a space”. Her third undertaking was a community project she undertook with pupils from the nearby Nyambugicu Primary School, which involved painting trees with an orange band “to make them visible” in an effort to champion environmental conservation.
This last project she called “Fragility in Existence”, because she had noticed that although the environment around the castle was peaceful, it was also fragile and in need of protection. Besides these artworks, a visitor will at once notice the ‘15ni’ giant mug sculpture by George himself.
The serenity at Tafaria makes it easier for artists to focus their energies. It helps that each artist comes without outside encumbrances. The establishment provides them with all the materials they need for their work and offers them 30 days of uninterrupted inspiration, not to mention a Sh70,000 stipend.
“You come as you are,” says Anne. “With nothing.” And from that tabula rasa, they are challenged to come up with something of value using locally-available materials as much as possible and also to involve the local community. In return, all they are required to do is donated their best work to the Tafaria Museum of Art and Philosophy. In Anne’s case, a burst of love compelled her to donate all the artworks she created during her time there. When the Business Daily visited the museum, she was hosting a solo exhibition.
One of the outstanding works on display, however, happened to be something that she had worked on earlier and that had, by a strange twist of fate, won her international recognition. It is simply titled “A Stitch in Time” and is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a country in the event that it turns a blind eye to the cries of the people and allows ethnic tensions to fester.
The multimedia artwork features a strong white strip, symbolising peace and prosperity, above a black strip that stands for death and destruction. Between them is a need and thread with stitches.
Thread down and you lead the country to the precipice. Thread up and you become the voice of hope and reason. The artwork is a challenge to the citizenry, as much as to the political leadership. They have to make a choice which way they want to thread.
“It is up to you to choose,” said the artist. “You cannot be in the middle. The stitches keep the community together.”
This artwork represents the idea behind the Tafaria Museum of Art, one of whose broad aims is to use art for social advocacy.
“A symbol can be used by a million people,” says George, who has described “A Stitch in Time” as a power piece. “You can never ignore the message.”
George’s idea is create a space where artists like Anne are free to express their ideas in a tranquil environment so that they can reflect and give birth to new ideas.
“The ultimate goal is to give art a platform for it to do what it was meant to do, which is to influence social agenda, to advocate for certain things.”
At present, much of the art is domiciled at Tafaria but starting from this month, it will make its way into the community, beginning with the sculpture to be installed outside the nursery school next door. With time, the artworks will find their way into rural trading centres and towns “so that we can use art as icons of identity as well” as George put it.
“We can have an art icon in a town like Nyahururu, which is an embodiment of what that town stands for and what are its aspirations.”
George’s ultimate aim is to give artists an opportunity for artists to create works that both “delight the heart and enrich the mind”.
In many ways, Anne embodies many of the ideas that George has been striving to achieve, not just for the Tafaria and its environs, but also for the arts and the belief that art can be used for social transformation. During her residency, Anne would stay up late in the studio, working on her creations. It was the price she had to pay to sleep in late.
“Tafaria is one of the few places you can sleep peacefully,” she says. “It is so serene.”
One of the things that she said she had to do was shed off her city skin and learn to listen to the silence. This serenity is evident in the more than 30 oil on canvass paintings and multimedia artworks that she worked on while she was an artist-in-residence at Tafaria last June.
One of her most outstanding images — indeed the centrepiece of her exhibition, which was hosted at the Tafaria Art Centre and Museum of Philosophy — depicted a long dusty track running into the horizon. On one side of the track was a well-kept electric fence, depicting the security of the Deighton Downs property. On the other was the rugged wooden poles and barbed wire fence put up by the smallholder farmers neighbouring the property.
It is a symbol of the difference that ideas can bring to a landscape. It is also a testament of the divide evident from investment in ideas on the one hand and the plough on the other. Yet, the work, presented in a slit-eye view perspective, has a tranquillity about it that is both inviting and absorbing; pulling in the audience to become part of the landscape; to contemplate the idea that the artists seeks to explore, and to imagine what lies ahead where the road disappears into the distance.
Already, Anne’s art is having a direct impact in the lives of people like Edna Njeru, now the curator of the Tafaria Museum and Centre for Art, which is part of the bigger Museum of art and philosophy that also includes Kenya’s sole numismatic museum (where coins and notes from different countries are showcased).
When Edna was asked to work as a cashier at the Tafaria gift shop, she had no idea what awaited her when she got there. The Community Development graduate from Chuka University thought she would be selling memorabilia as she had never interacted with artists before.
Her first encounter with art came when she met Guangzhou, who was working in the studio next door to the museum. Later, she met Anne and her perception about art changed.
Every morning, before clocking in, she would make her way to the studio to see what Anne had been working on overnight. The artist patiently explained to her what art was all about and how to interact with it.
“Now, even when I travel to Nairobi, I cannot walk past a museum,” said Edna.