The Kenyan arts community recently lost an iconic female painter. Annabelle Wanjiku Reeno, who rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, died in Kampala, Uganda on January 6.
Lydia Gatundu-Galavu, contemporary art curator at the Nairobi National Museum, remembers Reeno as a warm person with a great sense of humour. “And she always wanted the best for others,” said Galavu.
Reeno was born in 1962 in Nyeri County of central Kenya. As a child she loved playing with soft mud by the riverbank, and as an artist she was known to create her own colour tones from natural dyes and clay. Reeno was largely a self-taught painter but also received creative guidance from her first husband, artist Gunter Godor.
The late Ruth Schaffner — curator of the former Gallery Watatu — was later instrumental in advancing her career.
In rich colour tones and thickly laid-on paint, Reeno produced semi-abstract scenes around caring families, unified communities, cultural symbols and traditional values. There was a fantasy-like feel to her semi-figurative works rich in African imagery. At other times she filled the canvas with scenes of nature and the environment, and her penchant for deep blue backgrounds gave visual tranquillity to her bold illustrations.
Underlying this resolute faith in humanity was a woman who overcame huge obstacles as early in life to build a career in the arts. As a girl Reeno experienced child abuse, homelessness and teenage pregnancy. Over the years she worked as a domestic helper, a singer, a woman of the streets and business owner. Eventually she found her way back to her childhood passion for art and starting painting in earnest in the 1980s. She exhibited locally and internationally and her last Kenyan exhibition, called World of Colour, was at the Nairobi National Museum in 2017.
Twelve years ago, Reeno relocated to Uganda with her husband, and became a church minister and gospel musician.