A pioneer East African artist with global appeal whose struggle with poor health and financial problems has subdued his creativity
East Africa has hundreds of artists of whom a few dozen earns a full-time living and a handful have achieved international prominence. Jak Katarikawe is one of them.
Katarikawe never had any formal education but he was one of the first artists to elevate East African art to global standards. His oil paintings have been likened to those of maestros Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau for their dreamlike style and rustic rural scenes.
But in recent years, he has faded from the limelight and his creativity has declined as he struggles with poor health and financial problems. The story of Katarikawe’s journey is as unconventional as the tales he paints.
Born in the Kigezi region of south-west Uganda circa 1940, Katarikawe is entirely self-taught. He inherited the talent from his mother who used to decorate the walls of their mud hut with elephants and other designs.
Religious artwork he saw in a local church inspired him to start drawing the stories of his dreams while tending the family’s cattle.
“I got some chalk and started to draw when the cows were well fed,” recalls Katarikawe. Cattle-herding and a keen observation of rural life would influence much of his craft.
In the 1950s, Katarikawe got a job as a driver for David Cook, a professor at Makerere University. During one road trip the car developed a puncture and when Cook opened the boot to remove the spare wheel, he found some Katarikawe’s sketches.
“Professor Cook taught me how to sign. I didn’t know how to sign because I used to do this…” Katarikawe imitates putting on a thumbprint.
Cook connected Katarikawe to Sam Ntiru, a prominent Makerere arts lecturer who allowed Katarikawe to attend class even though some of the students were condescending because of his lack of education. Katarikawe eventually dropped out of university, unable to keep up with the theoretic aspects of arts studies.
In 1966, he held his first solo exhibition at the Uganda National Theatre and from then on, the world was his oyster.
A resident of Kenya for most of his adult life, he was one of the first Africans to exhibit in galleries like African Heritage, the French Cultural Centre and the Paa ya Paa founded by artist Elimu Njau.
Katarikawe’s delicate images in pastel colours eventually drew worldwide attention and he went on to have solo and group exhibitions in Europe and the USA.
But it was at Gallery Watatu that Katarikawe truly flourished, under the astute management of the gallery director Ruth Schaffner who had strong networks in the art world. Consequently, Katarikawe was able to earn a substantial living and support his large family of over 20 children, although being illiterate sometimes made him vulnerable to unethical people.
Elephants, livestock and rural people are regular characters in Katarikawe’s visual anecdotes of romance, family life or a particular moral messages. And he still enjoys telling the story of each picture.
A painting called ‘Why Are We Dying Every Day?’ depicts a herd of long-horned Ankole cattle, with two of the cows copulating in a position more customary to humans. The story, says Katarikawe, is that the cattle kept wondered why people slaughtered them. “So some cows said, let us imitate what humans do and maybe they won’t kill us.” While the other cows faced away, two cows tried lovemaking like humans but they were unable.
Another piece from the ‘Family Planning’ series shows a woman who gave birth to four children. It was very hard on her and did not wish to go through pregnancy again. “She knew her husband loved her but after her experience of childbirth, she insisted they go to the family planning clinic. That’s the story of this picture,” explains Katarikawe.
When Schaffner passed away in 1996, her Ivorian husband and co-director, Adama Diawara, continued running the gallery together with long-time friend, Osei Kofi, a Ghanaian-born art investor and former journalist living in Kenya. Kofi also took a personal interest in the welfare of Katarikawe, whose artwork he greatly admires.
In 2011, Diawara passed away and it was discovered that he had died without a will. Since then the Gallery, along with the rest of Diawara’s estate, is tied up in a court case. Several high value artworks were seized by auctioneers and sold off at throwaway prices to pay off debts. The Gallery shut down in 2012. Meanwhile, because of reduced promotional activities and business mismanagement, Katarikawe has been selling fewer paintings.
Nevertheless, he continues work at nearly 80 years old in his small rented flat in Nairobi because, he says, “Art is my life.” He has recently completed some new paintings, a few of which recall his masterworks of years gone by.
The story of the ailing, aging artist is not a new one but it goes to show that the commercial of aspect of art is as important as the creativity. To have a thriving art career requires some business skills and taking time to understand how the industry works.
Inventory keeping, cataloguing, pricing, promotions, negotiating with galleries and chasing after payment are just some of the administrative matters to be dealt with, over and above managing finances. Some artist may find the business side too taxing and opt to hire a business manager.
Over the years, Osei Kofi has used his own funds to buy materials for Katarikawe and several other artists. “The idea is to push them to get the materials to work with so that the issue is not the canvas but the creativity.”
While applaudable such philanthropy is not sustainable, relying as it does on goodwill and the financial ability of individuals without any guarantee of long-term commitment-.
It also raises the question of whether art lovers have a duty to step forward to buy a Katarikawe painting out of empathy. As Kofi sees it, “You’re buying art for posterity, you’re buying art for investment and because you appreciate fine art.”
As Kofi sees it, “If you don’t buy art from Jak, your grandchildren will curse you because they will know one day that you knew Jak and you didn’t buy his work.”