GALLERIES: A talent that still ticks merrily on…

Saturday February 22 2020

'Hunting' by Wanyu Brush.

'Hunting' by Wanyu Brush. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

More by this Author

The paint is thinner, the palette lighter, the compositions a little bolder… and one of East Africa’s pioneer painters soldiers on.

For Wanyu Brush, now aged 73 and in poor health, is nevertheless back in business with a major exhibition of 48 paintings, all but three made in the past five years.

And although he might be physically a touch weaker — to the point that he has moved from his long-time studio at Ngecha, the artists’ village to the west of Nairobi — it is clear that his spirit remains strong and his vision focused.

He has a lot to live up to; more than most.

Blessed, or maybe cursed, with a billing as one of the region’s Big Three artists of the First Generation — along with Sane Wadu and Jak Katarikawe — Brush with his dreadlocks and easy manner was forever in the spotlight… at openings, with record setting sales (Never, Never Again, based on the 2007 Post Election Violence, sold for $20,000), frequently photographed with celebrities and recipient of the Head of State Commendation Medal from former President Mwai Kibaki.

Real name John Njenga, Your Brush is rooted in his Kikuyu culture and was one of the driving forces behind the Ngecha Artists Association. He lived just outside the village with his studio inseparable from his home, one room set aside for teaching art to local children.


An artist who knows him well and is a great admirer of his work told me he painted mostly by night, in a studio lit by one or two candles, while seated on a traditional three-legged stool.

Regarded as a natural painter by Watatu Gallery owner Ruth Schaffner, the self-taught Brush was encouraged and promoted by her, sold steadily and soon began to develop an international reputation.

The collapse of the Watatu in 2011 left a gap in his life and a hole in his pocket.

After his health began to worsen Brush moved in with his friend the writer Njuguna Wakanyote at his home in the ‘other’ painters’ village, Banana Hill, and with Shine Tani’s barn of a gallery on his doorstep exhibiting there seemed a natural fit.

Brush’s current exhibition at the Banana Hill Art Gallery will run to March 5.

Of the 48 paintings on show, 34 are oil on canvas or board, 11 mixed media and just three are acrylics. All his early and middle-period works are immediately recognisable with their distinctive expressionist attack, the paint flailed thickly onto the surface and teased with a broad brush into series of serpentine strokes, interlocking in a thick and succulent impasto; a delight in itself.

In fact, the paint is so beguiling you could easily enjoy these paintings for that alone; regarding them as abstracts and ignoring their narrative content.

The later pieces, including those dated only this year, retain the vigour of these earlier canvases but with a softer, lighter palette. Happily his instinctive gift for composition remains intact, with even the most bizarre images slotting comfortably and with an air of inevitability into the whole.

As the Cubists used different facets of an object simultaneously to recreate its presence, so Brush takes many images from a single event to develop a new reality.

Thus Accident at Ngong Hills spreads the time frame of the accident into its cause, the accident and then its aftermath, while Hunting depicts an evangelical search for souls unfolding, like a video.

This celebration of time is typical of an artist who sees not just an event but is mindful of the myriad other happenings layered around it. Their existence, even if not depicted, is always implicit and therefore present.

Small wonder that at first sight many of his works appear chaotic, until slowly the sense of them reveals itself.

His subjects offer insights both into his daily life and demonstrate his keen political awareness sharpened by a strong sense of injustice.

In this show life around him is represented by, say, Ngecha Donkeys, The Wedding of my Sisters, Happiness in My Garden and so on, while his more political essays include The Cry of My Children, We Also Need Good Houses and Our Stolen Innocence.

And then there are the crossovers, like Port of Lamu. Is it a recollection, a memory of somewhere seen, or a reminder that this world heritage site is soon to become affected by an oil tanker base that will forever change it?

It is clear why the general public loves his paintings.

With energetic compositions full of thick, swirling paint, his canvases give the correct impression that someone has been hard at work offering good value for money.

Your art dollar goes a long way with Brush.

With prices ranging from $l50 to $15,000, proceeds from this exhibition will go towards helping with his medical expenses.

These are fine paintings with lives of their own.

They represent an exciting piece of the continent’s art history and importantly are not a stopped clock but a force that even after 50 years is continuing to develop and expand… a talent still ticking merrily on.