Celebrating Pioneer Women of the Arts

The Nairobi Gallery is a gem. I don’t know whose smart idea it was to convert the old Provincial Commissioner’s office at the corner of Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue into an art gallery, but one man, Alan Donovan, has made it into a wonderful tribute to his old friend and business partner, Joseph Murumbi. As the gallery’s slogan says, it is ‘where heritage lives on’.

Alan Donovan, impresario of African art and fashion, and Joseph Murumbi, once Vice President of Kenya, were the founders of African Heritage, which did more than any institution to promote, display and market African art and craft. Donovan created the Murumbi Trust, and the Nairobi Gallery has a superb permanent exhibition of items from Murumbi’s eclectic and precious collection of art and crafts from across the African continent.

From time to time, the gallery holds other exhibitions. Last Sunday I went to the opening ceremony of one of the most fascinating of them all: ‘Pioneer Women of the Arts’. It shows some of the work of nine women artists and teachers of fine art from East Africa.

When we arrived at the gallery at Sunday lunctime, Alan Donovan was talking about the pioneering contribution of Margaret Trowell, who founded an art school within Makerere University in Kampala back in 1937; it is now called the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts. She wrote six very informative books on the arts and crafts of Africa; unfortunately they are now out of print.

The works of the very first woman to attend the art school founded by Margaret Trowell – the 90 year-old Rosemary Karuga – are in the exhibition; as are works of one of the first women to obtain a degree there – paintings and batiks by Theresa Musoke.

There are six others, and I am concerned that I will not be able to do justice to all of them, given my limit of words. I might be biased because I know two of them well, and I have a prized piece by the third. Let me start with that, because it is a silk scarf copy of a batik by Robin Anderson that we bought as a memento of Kenya when we were leaving in 1969. The original batik, a stylized depiction of the world of the Masai, is in the exhibition.

Then there is Nani Croze, whose brilliant stained glass decorates so many public buildings in Kenya. Her Kitengela Glass is a magical place to visit – a kind of bizarre and amusing fairyland. Geraldine Robarts, too – teacher and painter – we have known since the mid-1980s, when she started promoting income generating projects for women in Kitui.

Joy Adamson is best known for her work with, and writing about, Elsa the Lioness, and for her dedication to conservation. But she was also a talented painter; many of her water colours of Kenyan flowers and portraits of its peoples are on show in the National Museum.

Alan Donovan calls the clay vessels of Magdalene Odundo ethereal; they are certainly beautiful. Now, she is Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in the south of England. Finally, there is Yony Waite, founder of the Gallery Watatu with Robin Anderson in the 1960s and the Wildebeest Workshop on Lamu Island in the early 1980s. Her paintings can be seen in Nairobi Hilton, Norfolk, The Stanley, Intercontinental, and Serena in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – and also now at the Nairobi Gallery.

The exhibition will be open until 8th December. It is something not to be missed. And you can also take a break from the viewing and enjoy a meal or a snack at the very pleasant Pointzero Coffee in the compound of the gallery. It serves various chapati wraps, samosas, pies, juices, teas – and, of course, excellent coffees.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation