They are nine incredible women “pioneer” artists whose impact on East African art has yet to be fully grasped, but who are forces to reckon with.
That is why they are all assembled in one exhibition, simply entitled “Pioneer Women in the Arts”, which is opening Sunday September 9, 2018 in the Nairobi Gallery, next to Nyayo House.
Curated by Alan Donovan of African Heritage House, the show will feature not only paintings and drawings, but also ceramics, books and glass sculpture by women who have lived and worked in East Africa for many decades. It will be officially opened by Amina Mohamed, Cabinet Secretary for Education.
Some are no longer with us, namely Margaret Trowell, Joy Adamson and Robin Anderson. But they are still having an impact on the region, both cultural and institutionally.
For instance, Margaret is the reason Makerere University has a brilliant art department: she started it. Joy’s books, films and TV series which were all based on her life raising baby lions and cheetahs ‘in the wild’ have led millions to associate Kenya with wildlife and adventurous safaris. And Robin’s starting up the first major commercial art gallery in Kenya, Gallery Watatu, with Yony Waite and David Hart paved the way for what’s become the burgeoning art scene that we have in Nairobi today.
But the remaining six in the women pioneers show are no less formidable artists whose influence and impact have been both aesthetic and educationally since they all have been teachers, lecturers and/or mentors of artists who have followed in their wake.
For instance, Rosemary Karuga who is the first Kenyan woman to attend Makerere’s art department (1950-52) under Margaret also taught Magdalene Odundo who’s not only Kenya’s first OBE, (given to her by the Queen Elizabeth in 2008). Professor Odundo is also the first Kenyan woman Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in Farmham, UK.
Then there is Geraldine Robarts who, in addition to being an indefatigable painter who’s exhibited all over the world, was a lecturer in fine art first at Makerere, then at Kenyatta University. (She’s taught everyone from Elkana Ong’esa to Gakunju Kaigwa.)
She has also trained rural women and men in a range of self-help projects, from weaving sisal tapestries to solar-drying fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.
Then there is Theresa Musoke who spent 20 years teaching and painting in Kenya, at Kenyatta University, the International School of Kenya and Kestrol Manor.
She also exhibited everywhere from Gallery Watatu and National Museum to Paa ya Paa Gallery and African Heritage.
But before that, this brilliant Ugandan artist got her first fine art degree from the Margaret Trowell Art Department at Makerere, her MFA from University of Pennsylvania in the US and in between, she won a Commonwealth scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London where she won accolades for her work.
The last two women are also artists and educators as well as innovators who have dared to branch out and break new grounds with their art.
Nani Croze is not only a painter and muralist. She founded the first jua kali glass-blowing furnace in Kenya which evolved into the Kitengela Glass and Research Trust.
She has run countless glass art workshops, (some for slum children). But she also founded the first Rudolf Steiner School in East Africa and started the Kenya Arts Diary which annually showcases contemporary Kenyan artists.
Finally, Yony who is synonymous with Gallery Watatu has also founded the Wildebeest workshops, one in Lamu where she has worked with women groups to create tapestries that tell their stories, the other at Athi River.
Yony has also fearlessly employed her art to advocate for issues she cares for passionately, such as peace and gender equity.
The nine women have paved the way for others to follow, such as Syowia Kyambi who studied under Theresa, Anne Mwiti who lectures as Kenyatta University and Moira Bushkimani who with Janice Iche and Peteros Ndunde will be exhibiting next Saturday week at The Attic Art Space.
WHAT’S UP IN VISUAL ARTS SCENE
“Bare Knuckles,” solo art exhibition by Richard Kimathi at One Off Gallery ‘The Pages of Life’ trio art exhibition by David Thuku, Ron Luke and Onesmus Okamar at Kobo Trust ‘Afro-Cubism: Journey #1” sculpture by Robin O. Mbera and the Mutuma Marangu Kisii Sculpture Collection at Creativity Gallery, Nairobi Museum ‘Afro-Renaissance” art exhibition by Native and Sogallo at Alliance Francaise. ‘People & Places” art exhibition by Coster Ojwang', James Njoroge, Naftal Moganyi and Joshua Mainga at Village Market Exhibition Hall Patrick Kinuthia art at Village Market top floor. Moira Bushkimani, Peteros Ndunde and Jackie Iche at The Attic Art Space September 8th. ‘Art in the Park’ at Dream Kona, Uhuru Garden September 8