GALLERIES: Rare watercolours escape a soaking…

Wednesday March 18 2020

'The Sinking Boat' by Wanyu Brush. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


More than 140 watercolours by First Generation master Wanyu Brush have been saved from a soaking and probable destruction.

And now a selected few of them are being put on sale.

The cache was uncovered by artist Shine Tani when he was choosing work for Brush’s recent exhibition of oils on canvas at the Banana Hill art gallery.

He found the paintings piled up in a corner of Brush’s old wooden studio near the artists’ village of Ngecha, to the west of Nairobi, where they were facing irreparable damage from the next downpour.

Brush, unwell and about to move to a friend’s home in Banana Hill, had nowhere to store them properly but was reluctant to sell any because he regarded them as too personal to release.

They date from a seminal period in his work — the late Eighties and early Nineties when he was finding his feet as an artist at the now defunct Watatu Gallery in Nairobi’s CBD, run by Ruth Schaffner.


Happily, Brush agreed Tani could take them to the safer — and drier — storerooms at Banana Hill, and finally it was agreed that some of these iconic works could go on sale.

 "They are much sought after by collectors, but Wanyu rarely agreed to part with any because he felt they were an important part of his development and he always wanted to hang onto them,” explained Tani.

He went on: "Luckily he agreed that because they risked being spoiled where they were I could take them to keep them safe and offer a few to the market from time to time so they would find good homes."

The paintings, known to a few other artists and collectors, show Brush at his best…questioning the limits of his burgeoning talent and searching to capture in a more fluent way the subjects closest to his heart; family, his Christian faith, life in the village and the political and social injustices he perceived and fought.

The titles tell the story — The Sinking Boat, Running from my Pet, and The Hunting Dog were typical village narratives — and the paintings perform a dance around each subject, illustrating it obliquely as in a modern ballet the dancer improvises on a theme, but here using the props of colour, light and composition.

This is Brush Central; focussed and determined to expand his visual vocabulary with a minimum of swift, telling brushstrokes and a radiant palette.

Pale yellows and soft blues predominate in a colour scheme that remains incandescent in spite of years of neglect. The fact that the paintings were in an untidy heap in the darkest corner of his studio may have helped to preserve their startling luminosity by protecting the paint from fading in the light.

Using watercolour was a happy choice too. Quick to apply and fast to dry it enabled him to express himself at speed — to dash down his ideas in series of rapid strokes that transmitted the energy of his thoughts directly to the paper.

Of course in doing so you see the occasional drip, misplaced line and the blurring of colour where one freshly applied stroke has bled into another still wet area.

I think of these — and you see them in many works by countless artists — like the inadvertent squeaks guitarists produce when fretting, quickly sliding their fingers along the strings; as part of the process, something to be enjoyed and celebrated as a by-product of a quicksilver mind and technique.

Not all the paintings have the lyricism of those with the lighter palette however. A few feature a darker orchestration of ochres, greens and browns to punctuate the delicacy of the majority and offer a sombre projection that shadows the force of his contemporary oils.

In spite of Brush’s reluctance to sell his watercolours one or two have in the past found their way onto the market, and whenever they did they caused a stir.

Typical was the stunning Nativity scene, Christ in the Manger, that reached the Circle Art Auction in Nairobi in 2013. One of the highlights of the sale and presented in a white mount and heavy white frame that sent it shimmering into the hall, it was hammered down for $1,900 ($2,230 with commission), which set a benchmark for them.

Seven years later, the ones at Banana Hill bracket that figure, ranging from $1,500 to $3,000, which reflects their quality, comparative rarity and the fact they are regarded as key pieces from this artist’s oeuvre.