Gallery Watatu’s On-going Saga

Many things have changed with Gallery Watatu since i wrote this story in May 2012. For one, most of Gallery Watatu’s art has been ‘containerized’ and shifted to Nani Croze’s Kitengela Glass Trust ‘for safe keeping’. Many Kenyan art lovers are saddened by the near-death status of Gallery Watatu. But a year ago, the gallery was already struggling. For some reason, the Nation bosses didnt want to print the story below, but it gaves quite a bit of useful background. THE SAGA OF GALLERY WATATU By Margaretta wa Gacheru Never Published by Nation Media Group. Written May 10, 2012 Ever since the West African spouse of the late Ruth Schaffner died without a will in August 2011, life at Gallery Watatu (one of Nairobi’s oldest commercial art galleries) has been in limbo. It’s been particularly painful for Adama Diawara’s business partner, Osei Kofi to watch the family of his friend feuding over the Ivorian businessman’s properties, including Gallery Watatu. “What makes it especially disappointing is that I was present when Adama expressed his explicit wish to have his son Mutari [by a previous marriage] and daughter Hawa manage his estate after he was gone,” said Kofi who was a friend of Watatu for many years before he and Adama went into business together. “Even before we became business partners, I used to take Adama’s artworks and sell them in Europe on his behalf,” Kofi said. Confessing that his efforts were often what enabled Adama to pay the rent for the Lonrho House space, Kofi for years was the equivalent of a silent partner who helped keep Gallery Watatu alive. Yet once the old man died without signing the necessary papers to settle his estate, he inadvertently created multiple complications not just to the family but also to the artists who relied on Watatu for exposure and sales for years. One of the biggest complications has been the intervention of a Kenyan woman who claims to be Adama’s ‘wife’ and ‘widow’ and thus, a key beneficiary of his estate. It’s true that Esther Njoroge had two daughters by Adama out of wedlock while he was married to Ruth, the German-American owner of Watatu who was his senior by two decades. But according to Morris, a former manager of Watatu who had worked both for Ruth and for Adama, the mother of his two daughters had never lived together with the man. “However, when the babies arrived, Ruth accepted them and even bought the woman a house to bring up her children in,” said Yony Waite, one of the three founders of Watatu back in the late 1960s Nonetheless, Kofi says Adama had warned him not to allow Esther to step foot in Gallery Watatu, “He foresaw the woman would complicate all our lives.” To avoid further hassles with the Diawara family, Kofi has decided to relocate Gallery Watatu to Westlands where he has already bonded with a new hotel coming up that will become the Gallery’s new home. “The hotel is opening around October this year, so I will be giving more details when the time comes near,” Kofi said. In the interim, he recently called a meeting of Watatu artists to inform them his plan and to encourage them to stick with him. He also recommended they take their artworks away, both to simplify the move out of Lonrho House and to help ensure the safety of their work. “Unfortunately, Esther showed up in the middle of the meeting, demanding to know why she hadn’t been informed it was happening,” said Kofi who recalls how he took heart in the presence of the artists and told the woman her lack of cooperation with Adama’s children had created havoc both to the family and to the gallery as well. Right after that, the situation got out of hand. Kofi lost control as one of the longstanding Watatu artists, Wanyu Brush, began a tirade against the so-called widow. “He accused her of destroying the gallery with her interference and non-cooperation. He also called her several unsavory names. He even told her she should never step foot in the Gallery again since that had been the wish of Adama himself,” Kofi said. So far, the woman has taken Brush’s warnings seriously. She hasn’t shown her face at the gallery since that day. However, Esther has already done sufficient damage. According to Mutari, during Adama’s last days Esther arrived at his father’s home, the one he once shared with Ruth, and moved herself in. “By then, Adama was too weak to tell her to go, so when he died, she was there to claim she was the grieving widow entitled to her inheritance.” Pitting her interests against Adama’s son Mutari and even against her own daughter Hawa, Esther apparently had little interest in taking over Watatu. She was more interested in the land Adama had obtained around Kenya in his lifetime. But since she is said to have been offered “good will” money in the millions to get Watatu out of Lonrho House as soon as possible, Esther has played her part in getting the gallery to relocate. For many friends of Watatu, the news that the gallery is shifting to Westlands is long overdue. “The Nairobi Art Market has definitely moved outside the city centre,” Kofi said. In fact, Watatu has been under pressure for years to move out of the space which is not only congested with cars, buses and pedestrians, but also has no parking and no security. Further details will be forthcoming, so watch this space.

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