The nine pioneer women of East African art

Friday August 31 2018

Three paintings by Rosemary Karuga. She was one of the first students at the Makerere art school. PHOTO | ALAN DONOVAN


On September 9, the Nairobi Gallery will host an exhibition celebrating nine of East Africa’s pioneering women artists.

The exhibition, to run through December 5, will show how far the region’s art and its purveyors have come. Kenyan Minister for Education, Amina Mohamed will be the guest of honour.

East Africa is a hotbed of creativity with almost every community proud of being the makers of one form of art or another, and mostly for daily use too.

Art in Africa is not confined to artefacts and images to be hung on the wall. Art is everyday life images and objects.


In 1934, Margaret Trowell arrived in Kenya with her husband and settled in Machakos, 50km east of Nairobi. She was fascinated with the dexterity and inherent artistic ability of the Kamba people among whom she lived for several years; this led her to write her first book, African Arts and Crafts, a classic published in 1937.


Later, she moved to Uganda, where she was the driving force behind the setting up of the Art School at the fledgling Makerere University. Arguably, the Art School became the best in Africa and now bears her name — the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA).

Her philosophy was “art for art’s sake” and she believed that art should be natural to the people. It was through her efforts that art was included in the early curriculum of Kenyan schools.

However, she clashed with Kenyan administrators of the time who basically wanted to limit arts teaching to technical training in skills like carpentry, which would be useful to the colonial government of the day. She found the climate in Uganda more open and willing to promote art for art’s sake.

She contracted one of the skilled Kamba carvers she worked with to come to Uganda and teach one of the first courses in African art and crafts.

She ended up publishing six books, including the groundbreaking African Design in 1960, as well as organising numerous exhibitions by art students in the region and in London, where she found support for her vision of the arts.


The cover of Margaret’s Trowell’s first book on African art written in 1937. PHOTO | ALAN DONOVAN


One of the first beneficiaries of Makerere art school and its first woman graduate was Rosemary Karuga, who had a Kenyan mother and Ugandan father.

Karuga, now 90 years old, ailing and living with her daughter in Ireland, developed a distinctive style of art using collages of local materials as well as newspapers and magazines. She became an art teacher and taught for many years.

She has exhibited her works with the leading artists of the continent and one of her early art students was the famous Kenyan ceramicist, Magdalene Odundo.


Rosemary Karuga, 90, with a sample of her work. PHOTO | ALAN DONOVAN


Odundo has received world acclaim for her extraordinary ceramic works. Her “vessels” of clay, based on age old techniques from both East and West Africa, reflect African culture. Her work is in a class of its own and sells at phenomenal prices.

Odundo has recently taken up glassmaking. This has resulted in several mammoth glass installations both in the US and Europe, sponsored by leading names in the glass industry like Corning.

Odundo had her first exhibition in Africa at the African Heritage Gallery as part of the UN Decade of Women's conference in 1985.

In 2008, she was granted the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her service to the arts.

In 2012, she received the African Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts. Recently, she was installed as the chancellor of the University of Creative Arts in the UK where she is Professor of Ceramics, thus holding the highest international position in the arts of any East African.


Another graduate of Makerere University in later years was the Ugandan Theresa Musoke.

She earned a Masters in Fine Art at the University of Pennsylvania where she developed her textile technique of painting and tie and dye. She later took up residence in Kenya and lived in the country for 20 years during which she exhibited regularly at local galleries.

She held several exhibitions abroad, particularly in the Scandinavian countries where her romanticised wildlife works, rendered in a moody mixture of abstract batik and oil painting, won great acclaim.

She taught art at Makerere University, then Kenyatta University College, the International School of Kenya and several other institutions.


Two of the pioneering nine women were co-founders of the then leading contemporary art gallery in East Africa, the famous Gallery Watatu.

These were Robin Anderson and Yony Wait-e (Jony Waite) who joined forces with David Hart to found this historic art institution. Gallery Watatu has since closed.

Anderson and Wait-e have very different styles of art but it was through them that many artists had a platform to show their works in an internationally recognised art space.

Anderson is famous for her “silk batiks,” a unique combination of sketching, painting and batik. Her subject matter is mainly people whom she encountered while travelling in Kenya with her father, a medical doctor.

Wait-e’s wildlife paintings are synonymous with Kenya’s safari style. They adorn numerous public buildings and hotels, especially the Serena hotels and lodges in Kenya and Uganda.

American-born Wait-e is now a Kenyan citizen and founder of the Wildebeest Workshop in Lamu — on Kenya’s North Coast — where she trains single women to produce high quality wall hangings that sell on the world market.


In the 1950s, there emerged an extraordinary woman artist who was entirely self-trained.

Born Friederike Victoria "Joy" in what is now the Czech Republic, she was better known as Joy Adamson.

Although mostly remembered for her lion conservation work and her book Born Free, she was a naturalist, artist and author.

She began painting trees and flowers of the then Kenya Colony, for which she received an important international award. She also captured on canvas the fish and coral reefs at the Kenya Coast as well as the wildlife of the country.

She then turned her attention to the ‘’Peoples of Kenya’’ — one of her books is titled thus. She knew that the glorious adornment and costumes she saw during her travels around the country would soon vanish, so she persuaded the colonial authorities to support her new adventure, in the course of which she painted the tribal costumes of the entire country of Kenya.

These masterpieces still adorn the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi as well as State.

Her museum on the shores of Lake Naivasha showcases her earlier works on Kenyan flora and fauna. However, she will always be most noted for the story of Elsa the Lioness, as told in her many books and later a movie, Born Free, starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers in 1966.


The Birds, by Geraldine Robarts. PHOTO | ALAN DONOVAN


Representing these nine courageous women, and expected to grace the opening of the exhibition will be two artistic stalwarts — Geraldine Robarts and Nani Croze.

Robarts has a lifetime of experience as a painter and university lecturer. She has lived in East Africa since 1964.

She has taught art at the Makerere and Kenyatta universities and has won numerous awards.

Through various projects she has developed, Robarts has offered people the opportunity to create income-generating activities that have improved the lives of many people who otherwise were struggling to survive.

Last but not least, Croze, who came to Kenya nearly a half century ago as an elephant researcher, is not only an accomplished environmentalist but is today synonymous with the Kitengela Glass Research and Training Trust, which has brought another dimension to the arts of the region, with stained glass windows and recycled glass objects.

Her workshop just outside of Nairobi in the Athi plains, has turned an arid landscape into a verdant fantasy land. Her monumental works appear in public spaces like the courtyard of the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, and her glass objects are a delight for those living in East Africa and beyond.


Moula’s Baobab, stained glass by Nani Croze. Right, Rosemary Karuga's earlier work. PHOTOS | ALAN DONOVAN

In 2010, Croze founded the Kenya Arts Diary, an annual calendar and catalogue of Kenya artists.

One thing in common these pioneering women of the arts have is that all have been both artists and teachers — in universities, schools and workshops.

As art historian Elsbeth Court remarked, “They are all art teachers and art do-ers. Their sharing of art, their experimentation, so much inclusion, outreach, generosity and institution building, are noted as we celebrate their lifelong careers in art making and active engagements to share art as a way of knowing, being, and literally making a better world.”


My Journey Through Africa, and The Birds by Geraldine Robarts. PHOTO | ALAN DONOVAN