Maasai, Navajo history is deeper than any painting can capture

Thursday August 06 2020

Maasai Moran entertain guests at Narok Stadium during the Madaraka celebrations on June 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


A donor attending a development partners meeting in a Europe invited us to his house, which doubled as an art gallery, for dinner. He walked us around the gallery, listed among the most prestigious exhibitions in the world and recipient of many awards, pausing by each painting to give details.

A good painting was known by its reputation and the fame of the artist, he said.

Everything adorning his walls was a masterpiece, expensive — none less than $300,000 — all painted by world acclaimed artists.

His narration of the history of each piece was spellbinding, drawing us into the artistic traditions of the old masters, going back to the 1st and 2nd centuries, embedded in Russian, Greek, German, French, Spanish, British, Italian history.

He spoke about contemporary, conceptualism, realism, avant-garde, modern and street art too. His deep voice echoed across the vast rooms, devoid of everything except the artwork.

We walked into the last exhibition room, which had only two paintings, clearly the most breathtaking and contrasting against a white painted wall.


They were painted from photographs, he said. I instantly recognised the sheer vastness of the Maasai Mara National Reserve on a painting titled Maasai Moran. It had a Maasai moran dressed in a flaring fiery red shuka, spear in the right hand, beaded rungu on the left, a circle of beads an inch above his ankles and another below the knees.

The painter’s brush had caught the beaded necklaces around his neck and the earrings in his lobes in motion as he jumped in dance.

The second painting, titled Navajo Warrior, was of a Native American man.He, too, was painted as he danced with short spear in his right hand, a huge rock of yellowish hue behind him. He wore a headdress decorated with what looked like cowrie shells, with colorful feathers at the crown. The earrings glittering in his ear lobes seemed to be carved out of a precious stone.

Our host told us how he acquired the paintings, but not the history of the Maasai moran or the Native Americans, or their countries, as he had done with previous paintings.

This absence of history struck me deeply, as the Maasai and the Native Americans have a lot in common.

In the early 20th century, both saw their territories, livestock, and populations vastly reduced by colonialism, war and disease. Both are now seen as a tourist attraction, representing a “tribal” world.

The colonialists allocated thousands of acres of fertile Maasai highlands for occupation by white settlers, particularly in the Rift Valley, a trend that continued in post-independence Kenya, as African leaders participated in conspiracies against their own people.

The Maa names of Kenyan towns and cities — such as Nairobi from the phrase Enkare meaning cool water; Nakuru from Nakurro, a dusty place and Eldoret from Eldore, meaning stony as the Sosiani river was stony — show just how widespread Maasai territory was.

The Maasai were forcefully removed from the fertile land to semi-arid lands reserves in Laikipia and Ngong. The settlers later followed the Maasai to Laikipia for more land. Vast areas of Maasai ancestral land became wildlife reserves and national parks.

Native Americans, wrongfully called Indians, were in turn forcefully removed from their ancestral territories through a law, the Indian Removal Act, into still existing reservations.

Both the Maasai and Native Americans were moved through the purported signing of treaties between colonialists and their leaders. Both have fronted arguments to prove traditional governance and community ownership did not allow any individual to sign away land.

Land was owned by the community to use and hand over to the next generation. The settlers believed land could be bought and then belong to an individual.

The repercussions of moving the Maasai and Native Americans to reserves resonate to this day.

At dinner, we told our host about this important omitted history.

Listening politely, he said his ambition was to build a sterling international reputation, showcasing the finest paintings for art tours or cultural holidays in cities like New York, Hong Kong, Zurich, Abu Dhabi, Milan, Tokyo, Maastricht, and Geneva.

This is not to offend you, he concluded, but not many are likely to be interested in the history of the Maasai moran and Navajo warrior we just discussed.

The paintings seemed fairly recent — the moran had a mobile phone tucked into his belt and the Navajo warrior wore a watch. Maybe these two men were alive, we mused.

Would they ever receive payment for their paintings, available to the highest bidder?