Ancient tradition is bang up to date

Friday June 29 2018

Crocodile, by Saada. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


It is rare to find a new style of art — and even more unusual to find one on your doorstep.

Yet that is surely the case with a school that began 11 years ago in Tanzania, has since gone round the world and is finally making its debut in Kenya.

The style is based on a very simple idea and, when you think about it, a fairly obvious one, but it took the sisters of a religious order to realise its potential, develop it and push it through to the market.

Leading the process was Sister Jean Pruitt of the Maryknoll Sisters, a Dominican order founded in 1912 in New York. Based in Dar es Salaam, Sister Jean noted the beauty of traditional henna patterns painted since antiquity on fingernails, hands and feet to celebrate weddings and other festivities.

Why not, she wondered, get the women who applied the henna dye to paint the same patterns with acrylics on canvas and sell them as pictures for the wall?

No reason at all why not — and so the style was born.


Sister Jean started with 10 women henna artists in 2007, with a project designed primarily to expand their skills and provide new employment opportunities.

In Sister Jean’s own words, “It is the hope of this project to take these artists out of the shadows and empower them to share their creativity and talents in schools, in museums, in exhibitions, and on the Web.”

And like all sound, simple ideas, it grew.

The next stage came three years ago when the Maryknoll Sisters set up an art gallery in Dar devoted to the style, but also offering work by other artists from the area.

Called the Vipaji Gallery, it is near Oyster Bay, where the famous Tingatinga artists are based, and it was the second arts centre to be opened in Dar by Sister Jean.

In 1972 she had started the Nyumba ya Sanaa (Art Gallery) which had a similar mission — to support local artists and to help them display and sell their work, as well as to offer training in painting and sculpture.

Sadly, Sister Jean died last September in Arusha.

But her work goes on and the Sisters continue to run the Vipaji (Talent), with exhibitions co-ordinated by the painter Evarist Chikawe.

He has arranged a show of 58 paintings by 23 Vipaji artists at the Banana Hill Art Gallery, to the west of Nairobi.

And there, among a wide range of styles from impressionism to the purely abstract, are 16 works by seven of the 10 henna artists — on show for the first time in Kenya.

Previously Vipaji henna paintings have been exhibited in the US, Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan and Zanzibar, but not until now in Kenya.

Unlike the brown or black of traditional henna dye, the women have developed a palette that sings with colour; pinks, greens, violets and yellow.

At first sight, the paintings look like the intensely decorated fabrics and wallpapers associated with the Paisley pattern, based on the ancient teardrop shape — sometimes compared to a mango — of the Persian buteh, created as a motif for the fire-worshipping Zoroastrianists. It represented the cypress tree that for them symbolised everlasting life.

Others feature exotically abundant flowers sinuously sprouting from entwined stems.

Yet a longer look reveals them to be paintings, individually created, that have a certain hypnotic quality in that one can become lost in the intricacies of the swirling patterns that shift and dance before the eye.

Usually they are non-figurative like henna body art, but occasionally an artist will slip in an animal that shows a sly sense of humour at work. It also shows some familiarity with the more florid examples of the Tingatinga style produced around the corner in the Bay.

At Banana Hill, for instance, is Crocodile, by Saada, which shows the beast with fearsome teeth on a background of interlocking flowers.

The henna artists showing there as well as Saada, are Najma Ameir, Damtu, Mwana, Jamila, Rehema,and Shery.

And after admiring their paintings, there are still 42 pieces by 16 Vipaji artists to enjoy.

They include three quasi-Impressionist works by Haji Chilonga, well known in Nairobi and a regular at Banana Hill, and two rather good paintings by Vipaji organiser Evarist Chikawe, both on a musical theme: Listening and Ready with Guitar.

These display a strong sense of design and a tendency towards using black to model volume plus a willingness to outline, which reminded me a little of Ferdinand Leger — and if they can call the Ugandan Jak Katarikawe the African Chagall, why not throw Leger into the pot as well?