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September 21, 2018

Art review: Nine forerunner female artists of Kenya

Painting by Joy Adamson
Painting by Joy Adamson

Pioneer Women of the Arts exhibition, opening at the Nairobi Gallery on September 9, reflects on the journey of early Kenyan female artists. The exhibition is curated by art connoisseur and co-founder of the African Heritage Gallery, Alan Donovan. He has assembled a varied collection of recent and older creations. 

Rosemary Karagu, 90, born of Ugandan and Kenyan parents, was the first woman to study fine arts at Uganda’s Makerere University. After retiring from teaching she went back to art, exhibited successfully abroad and won a Lifetime Achievement Award.  Karagu’s preferred style was collage illustrations from recycled paper, showing cultural people and family scenes in uncomplicated images.  

A former student of Karagu is Magdalene Odundo, now a world-famous pottery artist based in the UK. Her hand-made ceramics draw on East African earthenware traditions combined with modern methods to make exquisite vessels.

Ugandan-born Theresa Musoke is also a Makerere graduate who lived in Kenya for over 20 years. Of her body of work, emotional images of wildlife in oil paintings and batik textiles stand out. 

Geraldine Robarts, almost 80 years now, still paints for hours every day. I had a chance to view some of her pieces in advance, and it is a diverse assortment. Large abstracts in bold colours, brilliant watercolours from coastal landscapes, vibrant market scenes, resin-coated portraits textured with beads and sequins, block prints, and dark images.

Of note is a large, multi-coloured abstract called Feminism, with flowing streaks that represent the tears, blood and experiences of women. It is filled with layers and depths, which Robarts attributes to the complex nature of women. 

Margaret Trowell lived in Kenya from 1934, before settling in Uganda and playing a prominent role in promoting upcoming African artists. She also wrote six books. The Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere is named after her. 

German-born Nani Croze is synonymous with the Kitengela Glass Factory. Since 1979, the factory recycles used glass into three dimensional art and functional items. Croze’s decorative glassware graces public spaces and private homes all over Kenya and abroad. 

The late Joy Adamson’s is better known for her book, Born Free, about raising an orphaned lion cub in the 1950s. But her botanical illustrations of local plants and portraits of cultural peoples are noteworthy. Her watercolours, many of which hang in the Nairobi Museum and at State House, present the authentic outfits and amazing body adornments of traditional communities of Kenya, much of which has since vanished. 

Robin Anderson is better known as the co-founder of the famous but now-defunct Gallery Watatu. Anderson’s works include watercolours and oil paintings, but she is particularly remembered for stylish batiks made from silk. 

Her business partner, and also featured in the show, is American Yony Waite. A Kenyan resident since 1960 and now a citizen, she remains a prolific producer of art that often encompasses wilderness scenes but extends into decorative fabrics. 

Pioneer Women of the Arts will run until December. 

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