By Margaretta wa Gacheru
The long-silent local painter is coming out of artistic hibernation after almost a decade.
Francis Kahuri deserves to be classed as one of the founding fathers of East Africa’s contemporary art explosion. A Kenyan by birth, Kahuri has risen from the rural countryside of lush tea-growing Limuru [situated some 60 kilometres north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi] up to being among the myriad numbers of globe-trotting Kenyan artists who in the two decades have been all over Western world sharing their creative spoils with appreciative audiences all the way from Paris to Bonn to New York and parts beyond.
In Kahuri’s case however, a medical problem knocked him out of the artistic arena nearly a decade ago, so it is good news to hear Kahuri is making a come-back!
Born sometime in the mid-1940s, Kahuri was among the first Kenyans to take fine art seriously enough to seek out a local art school, study painting and drawing long before whole departments came into being [at Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities], and point the way so many other young creative Kenyans to dare devote their lives to artistic expression and a painterly life style.
The last born among his father’s four sons, Kahuri lost his mother early and thus got taken from his birthplace at Gathiga village to his grandmother’s several kilometers away.
A mama who still wore traditional Gikuyu leather skirts and dangling ears, the cucu [grandmother] shared lots of ancient stories with the bereaved little boy up until British colonials declared an Emergency had hit their “white man’s country” (the term given to Kenya by the British Lord Delamere) in 1952. From there, Kahuri went back to his original family home in Limuru.
The artist Francis Kahuri with one of his paintings
This is the same Kahuri who, after nine years of absence from the local Kenyan art scene, will be holding a Retrospective Art Exhibition this coming November at the Banana Hill Art Studio.
The award-winning painter used to feature largely in group and solo shows at Nairobi’s French Cultural Centre, Gallery Watatu, African Heritage and National Museums Contemporary African Art Gallery, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when Ruth Schaffner was stimulating up-and-coming artists with regular sales of their art and encouragement of both novice and well-known painters like Kahuri.
Schaffner was especially helpful to Kahuri who, up until the German-American curator took over Watatu in 1985, had been making and marketing his colourful batiks, items he readily called “curio art.”
“Ruth is the one who encouraged me to paint on canvas,” said Kahuri who admits he’d aspired to be a visual artist from the time he first found his way to Paa ya Paa Art Centre when it was still in Sadler House in Nairobi’s commercial centre.
“That was the first time I had seen Africans painting and producing amazing works of art,” said Kahuri, who remembers that as a time when Idi Amin had driven fast-footed African artists and intellectuals [mostly Makerere University graduates and lecturers] out of Uganda for imminent fear of death.
It was a transitional time for Paa ya Paa since the Tanzania-born Elimo Njau had already moved some of the gallery outside the city to the peri-urban area of Ridgeways in Kiambu. Yet the city centre home was still making a splash by hosting East African artists and writers as diverse as Okot p’Bitek, Theresa Musoke and Taban lo Liong as well as Hillary Ng’weno, Philip Ochieng and James Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It was also attracting international celebrities as well, including Sidney Poitier, Dick Gregory, Alvin Ailey, Langston Hughes, Walter Rodney, and John Updike.
But it was the Ridgeways wing of Paa ya Paa where Kahuri met working artists like Samwel Wanjau and Jak Katarikawe, and realized he wanted to do as they did. His only problem was he needed to learn new techniques other than merely batik-making.
Kahuri was grateful to the neighbor, David Kang’ni, who first taught him to make batiks using cloth, candle wax and paint. “It was thanks to him that I discovered I had a gift for drawing,” recalled Kahuri.
Kang’ni had only reached Standard 7 at a time when Kahuri had already completed Form 4 in 1968 at Karuri High School. “But he had gone to the YMCA Craft Training Centre at Shauri Moyo [in Nairobi] where he’d learned the techniques of making batiks.”
Kahuri claims he’d known nothing of art before completing secondary school. But he was keen to train with Kang’ni once he saw his friend was earning a living selling his batiks to people like Sherry Hunt of Studio Arts 68 and Alan Donovan of African Heritage.
My wives Oil on canvas
“I’d go to Kang’ni’s home where he’d hold one-on-one workshops for me,” said Kahuri who was a quick learner.
“But I could quickly see there was a problem with batiks: as soon as I began making and selling mine, other Gathiga guys started to copy my designs.”
Fortunately, it was another batik artist called Alfred Njoroge who introduced Kahuri to Dora Bett, the principal of the Kenya Art Society. The Art Society had been strictly a European affair ever since it began in the early 1920s. “It was for ex-patriates and diplomats’ wives,” recalled Kahuri.
But Dora Bett took kindly to Kahuri and wrote a letter to the National Christian Council of Kenya on his behalf. “She wrote requesting they give me a scholarship, which they did,” he said.
Those funds enabled Kahuri to attend KAS from 1973 to 1977 when it was unceremoniously shut by the Kenya Ministry of Education. “The Minister insisted that Miss Bett Africanise the school, but she refused, and so the Society was closed,” he said.
By then, Kahuri had learned the techniques of painting and drawing that he had so sorely sought ever since he made his way to Paa ya Paa. But there was still the question of survival. And so he resorted back to batiks since their sale afforded him quick cash.
“Miss Bett inspired me a lot,” recalled Kahuri who admits he was one of a barely a handful of African art students. But he clearly didn’t mind being in the minority since he was learning what he called “the secret” of making paint permanent on canvas.
“I had attended workshops at Paa ya Paa, but I never learned that ‘secret’; I found out how from Miss Bett.”
But Kahuri says it wasn’t until Ruth Schaffner showed up on the scene that he felt assured he could get back to painting and make a living doing it.
Making that shift from batik and cloth to paint and canvas was a turning point in Kahuri’s life. “Ruth still liked my batiks and she used to take them with her to sell when she traveled to Germany and the States,” he said.
But it was his earth-toned semi-abstract figurative paintings, so often infused with story lines he had learned from his grandmother that made Kahuri such a towering figure in the local contemporary art world.
For instance, it was the reason he was selected in 1990 to be the only African artist to participate in a project based in Paris, France, called “People to People.”
“That painting now hangs at the UNESCO Hall in Paris,” he said.
It was also his powerful local people imagery that made him an essential ingredient of practically every group exhibition organized by either the Alliance Francaise (especially under Guy Le Croix), the National Museums or Gallery Watatu.
One of the most memorable group efforts Kahuri took part in was in 1996 when a host of leading local artists took their brushes and donated paints to a monumental canvas at the FCC and produced an intricate and visually explosive mural that is said to still be in the stores of FCC. Among those who took part in making that historic mural were Kahuri, Shine Tani, Wakonyote Njuguna, Meek Gichugu, Kamal Shah, Christopher Onywecha, Stephen Njenga and Dinesh Shah.
The other group projects that made a lasting impact on Kenyan culture were a series of paintings for ‘development-conscious’ calendars, conceived during local artists workshops organized by the German-born artist Nani Croze and Dr. Eric Krystal. Some came out of a development-oriented workshop that Nani organized, others derived from some organized for the NGO Family Planning Private Sector which was headed by Dr. Krystal.
Feeding my baby oil on canvas
“The themes range from family planning to water and soil conservation,” said Kahuri who notes the topics are as relevant today as they were in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, Kahuri’s last group effort at FCC in 2000 was not quite so successful. “They got practically no publicity,” says Kenyan artist and Banana Hill Art Studio manager Shine Tani who plans to curate Kahuri’s retrospective exhibition later this year.
Then in 2002, misfortune hit Kahuri like a bombshell. He had a stroke that paralyzed the right hand side of his body, including the hand that painted all his lovely art works. “But slowly by slowly, I have been getting my capacity back,” said Kahuri who has been working hard in the last six months completing a myriad of paintings he hadn’t quite completed before his malady struck.
“So his newer works will also feature in the exhibition together with his older canvases,” said Shine.
The blessing for Kahuri is that few of his unsold works are sitting in galleries like Watatu where they might simply be gathering dust. He has a large cache of well-stored paintings to show which are just as fresh looking as when he first made them many years ago.
So the art-loving local public has something to look forward to later this year when Francis Kahuri emerges like a long-cocooned butterfly to expose just how brilliant his painterly techniques were and still are. It will be our privilege to trek up the Limuru Road just to see how strong and fit this seminal Kenyan painter remains after years in hibernation.
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