Despite being one of the best known fine artists on the East African scene, Yony Waite has always understood the commercial component of visual arts.
From the time she opened Gallery Watatu in Nairobi with Robin Anderson in the late 1960s, to starting up a small framing business in the early ‘70s, to setting up the Wildebeest Workshop on Lamu Island in the early ‘80s, Waite has always had a knack for blending business with fine art.
Waite, whose work can be seen in many five-star hotels in East Africa, including the Nairobi Hilton, Norfolk, The Stanley, Intercontinental and Serena in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, has one quality that is essential to succeed in any business, and that is perseverance.
That attribute was most recently seen in the way she handled the tragic fire that destroyed her home and Wildebeest West Gallery at Athi River early this year. She was just about to open the new gallery when its makuti roof went up in smoke, together with countless paintings and other priceless possessions.
Her response was to board a bus and take off on a solo tour of East Africa. Using matatus and buses, it was a journey, she said, that “was good for my soul.”
She’s been back to work long enough to re-roof the Athi River gallery and complete the first of several commissions that she had in the pipeline — for one of her best patrons, Serena Hotels, for whom she has been painting for decades.
Having come to Kenya in the mid-1960s from Somalia where her father had been the chief electrical engineer for USAid, she and Robin had already established Gallery Watatu when she got her first commission from Serena. It was to paint wall murals at their first hotel in Amboseli.
“The hotel hadn’t even been built by then, so we literally camped out while the rooms went up and I painted them one by one,” she recalled.
Since then, Waite has painted a large number of murals and occasionally designed interior décor for Serena’s many hotels and lodges all over East Africa. She has painted murals in bedrooms, dining rooms, lounges, and even in gyms and spas. Her wildlife landscapes can be seen in hotels everywhere from Amboseli, Entebbe, and Kilimanjaro to Kampala, Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro, and Nairobi.
Waite was also commissioned to paint a ten-metre by eight-metre canvas that was turned into a colourful canopy when the Nairobi Serena served a grand luncheon to honour the Ismaili spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.
Her latest commission is for the Serena Chanzu on Mombasa’s north beach. The 32 paintings are meant to hang in pairs in the 16 new bedrooms currently being built there.
Mounted on wooden boards and simply framed in dark mahogany, the paintings are all studies of Lamu interiors. Waite highlights the arabesque wooden carvings that Lamu architecture is renowned for, including carved windows, doors and walls.
Her next Serena project involves painting walls and window frames for the Serena Mara, that will be suffused with wildlife, especially the colourful birds of East Africa.
Indeed, Waite’s relationship with the hotel group can be compared to that between the artists of the Renaissance and their patrons, which enabled everyone from Rembrandt to Michelangelo to spend their lifetimes creating paintings and sculptures.
In today’s world, it would seem, the tourist hotel has replaced the church and the bourgeois elite who once commissioned artists to glorify their power, terrestrial or celestial, through their art.