Elimo Njau’s living art is testimony of the present and past

Saturday March 13 2010

The shell of the original burnt gallery still stands unrestored, being used as an open-roofed gallery. Photo/RHODIA MANN

The spirit of art should float like the dollar: one never knows when it will rise or fall!” says Elimo Njau.

Since he believes art has neither a beginning nor an end, he sees himself as merely one phase in the entire saga.

Despite his many years “in business,” Njau refuses to give himself any grand title.

Njau is no stranger to the world of art.

In fact, he ranks among Africa’s greats.

Yet he still considers himself a student of those who came before him and does not shy away from celebrating them.


Currently working out of his “new” Paa ya Paa Gallery — on Ridgeways Road off Kiambu Road in the suburbs of Nairobi — Njau is holding an exhibition A Walk Through Black History, to celebrate those who have inspired and continue to inspire generations of Africans.

Paa ya Paa is a cultural phenomenon.

Every corner of the garden is seen as a creation, a vegetable patch or a tree.

The entire compound is used as a display area for works of art, by Njau as well as other artists.

On one wall, life-size three-dimensional figures represent The Beauty Contest, sculpted by Samuel Wanjau.

On another, a trompe l’oeil (literally “fool the eye”) mural shows elders enjoying whatever live performance will unfold before them.

This charming piece of whimsy was a collaboration between Moses Kabira and Peter Murio.

Turn a corner, and you run into a huge sculpture by Njau showing two men shouldering a large pot in which they capture the spirit of youth.

In the main gallery, you make your way around a large installation depicting The Last Supper in modern form: a large glass-topped table with tree-trunk base, surrounded by lopped-off tree trunks to form seating for the Disciples.

A large “work in progress” by Njau, begun after Kenya’s post-election ethnic violence, represents reconciliation.

Disaster struck the centre in 1997, when an electrical fire destroyed the main building, the works of art, and all the archival material displayed and stored in it.

The empty shell of the old gallery still stands, unrestored, accepted philosophically as yet another phase in the ongoing story.

Despite this major setback, Njau and his wife Phillda are indefatigable.

A Walk Through Black History depicts such works as a portrait of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai by Kibacia Gatu composed entirely of tiny glass beads, and banana-fibre collages by Daniel Marigi of Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.

Included in the exhibition are photographs of paramount chief Kinyanjui wa Gatharimu, Miriam Makeba, Wole Soyinka, and the Africa American film star Sydney Poitier, who visited the gallery in 1972.

Overseas contributions came from artists as far away as South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil and America.

A large area of the garden designated as the Forest Compound is given over to live performances, including music, dance and poetry readings, which accompany every single function here.

The Arts Centre operates on a shoestring budget, ye the work to promote, enlighten and inspire never ceases, attracting large crowds of enthusiasts.

What’s next? An Easter Arts Festival. And in October, a musical tribute to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002.

This commemoration is an annual event, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

The spirit of art lives on in ultra-capable hands. Nobody knows who will be drawn in next. We only know the where.

Born on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Njau was from an early age encouraged to be creative.

His talent was recognised by church elders, and he was invited to illustrate lessons for Sunday School. Painting from the Bible became a speciality.

His talent eventually led to a degree in Fine Arts and History of Art at Makerere University, which at that time had strong affiliations with the Slade School of Art in London.

He was later invited to join the faculty, and taught at Makerere from 1959 to 1962.

An exhibition he inspired entitled Let the Children Paint, using only locally available materials, drew attention from London.

However, in keeping with the times, its success was seen as a colonial achievement, rather than an African one.

His most famous works, five enormous murals depicting the life of Christ, were created in 1959 for the Anglican Cathedral in Murang’a. Influenced by the great painters of the Italian Renaissance, Njau used egg tempera as his medium.

As a result, the colours are as fresh as the day on which they were painted.

The murals were reviewed in the London Times, and established Njau as an artist of international renown, albeit still within a colonial framework.

The spirit of art brought Njau to Nairobi, where he opened an informal centre in Westlands called the Njau Art Studio.

A student from Makerere joined him, and before long other artists made the studio their home. The studio grew organically.

As the saying goes, behind every great man there is the proverbial woman — in this case his first wife, Rebecca, a poet.

The studio became a true “salon” — a meeting place for artists, sculptors, musicians, poets and writers.

The success of the studio had as much to do the artists’ dedication as with the drive of Njau’s wife.

Njau’s Walk down memory lane pays tribute to other great souls who helped to establish the arts in East Africa, such as Margaret Trowel, Malin Sorsbie, Alex Mitchel and Hilary Ng’weno.

Encouraged by these “greats,” the studio moved to downtown premises, under the name Paa ya Paa Arts Centre.

The name translates as “the antelope rises,” bringing to life the Akamba art of woodcarving

Success followed upon success, and Elimo was given a weekly column in the Nation newspaper.

In the spirit of a now Independent Kenya, he broke away from colonialism, encouraging African art to be seen as truly African.

His writings made him unpopular with his landlord, and eventually he was asked to relocate.

It was then that a five-acre plot of land became available on Ridgeways Road off Kiambu Road, and in 1971 sponsorship was found to purchase it.

That is how Njau found his current base.

He is still there, aided by his indispensable second wife Phillda, a gifted and dedicated musician, teacher and photographer.

Between the two of them, this small corner of Kenya continues to be a hive of artistic activity.

He loathes what he calls “mob-ocracy” and “comfort-ocracy.”

He detests “art in a frame.” Instead, he believes art should be an essential part of daily life, helping us distinguish right from wrong, and beauty from that which is ugly.

Rhodia Mann is a writer, jewellery designer, ethnographer, film maker and safari guide, and a former owner of Gallery Watatu in Nairobi.

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