GALLERY WATATU has a glorious history but is in limbo today GALLERY WATATU A CENTRAL HUB OF CONTEMPORARY ART SINCE THE SIXTIES///. By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Daily Nation, August 5, 2013//// Gallery Watatu wasn’t the first contemporary art gallery that opened in Nairobi’s Central Business District in the 1960s. There was Paa ya Paa, which opened on Koinange Street in 1965 and was formed by six local art lovers including Oxford University Press Editor Charles Lewis and Terry Hirst who’d been sent by the British Council to start an Art School at what was then Kenyatta College. Then there were Kenyan art lovers like Jonathan Kariara, James Kangwana, Hilary Ng’weno and the Tanzanian art professor Elimo Njau who remains the Art Centre director to this day. Studio 68, which was run by a South African lady named Sherri Hunt, was also there as was the New Stanley Art Gallery which was situated right inside the hotel. But Gallery Watatu was the first CBD gallery to feature both international and local artists. Founded in 1969 by two artists and one graphic designer, its strategic location, halfway between the New Stanley and the Hilton Hotels, meant that from the beginning Watatu was frequented by global tourists as well as locals of all types. And contrary to the common misconception about the Gallery, that it was essentially an ex-patriot enclave which only exhibited art by whites, one of the three co-founders Yony Waite, recalls how from early on the gallery exhibited artworks by Africans like the late Louis Mwaniki , Asians like Usam Ghadan, and Semitic painters from around the Middle East. Paa ya Paa also attracted an eclectic assortment of mainly Pan African painters. And in its heyday, it also attracted Pan African poets, dancers, musicians, comedians and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory and Alvin Ailey. What made Gallery Watatu distinctive when it opened in 1969 was that the two passionate professional painters, the late Robin Anderson and Yony Waite (who was then known as Jony) simply wanted space to show their own art. Both women were prolific and also impatient at having to wait in line for exhibition space at the New Stanley (which is actually where the two first met). “So we agreed the only alternative was to start a gallery of our own,” recalls Waite who admits that she and Anderson where very different. (Waite was something of a ‘hippie’ who studied fine art at University of California at Berkeley and in Japan and Anderson came from a conservative colonial background.) But the two women shared a passion for painting which transcended their differences. The Gallery quickly attracted art lovers from all over the world, many of whom admired the art of Anderson (who painted elegant wildlife scenes on silk batik) and Waite (who also painted Kenyan wildlife only in oils on mainly canvas). The women together with the third ‘mtu’ of the ‘watatu’ troika David Hart readily opened up their space to visiting artists from everywhere, including East Africa. Contrary to the oft repeated myth that Watatu only began exhibiting African artists after the German American curator Ruth Schaffner bought the gallery from Waite in 1985 (Anderson had sold out her shares in the early 80s after which several women bought stakes in the gallery for short periods of time, including Rhodia Mann and Shari Saitoti), the gallery didn’t discriminate except in terms of the quality of art exposed. Thus, a number of Makerere-trained artists had major exhibitions at Watatu, including Frances Nnaggenda (who actually headed Makerere’s art school), Eli Kyeyune, Teresa Musoke and Jak Katarikawe (who technically didn’t go to Makerere, but was mentored by the Makerere art professor Sam Ntiru). Among Kenyans, the Italy-trained sculptor Louis Mwaniki was the first one to exhibit there. But then came Ancent Soi whose art Yony initially saw in the Nairobi City Market in Soi’s converted vegetable stall. Sane Wadu and Etale Sukuro were also among the first Kenyans to exhibit at Watatu in those ‘early days’. Africans from elsewhere in the region who exhibited at the Gallery included Jonathan Kingdon from Tanzania and Charles Sekano from South Africa. What changed when Ruth Schaffner took over the gallery in ’85 was a more intense focus on cultivating contemporary Kenyan art. She would run workshops for fledgling painters like Shine Tani (who currently runs the Banana Hill Art Gallery) and she also provided aspiring local artists with paints, brushes and papers that they would use to create art which they would then sell back to Ruth for a few hundred shillings. Ruth was also a brilliant businesswoman and marketer of Kenyan art. After she passed on in 1986, the Gallery sadly went downhill. Run for a time by her late husband, the Ivorian businessman Adama Diawara and finally by the Ghanaian journalist Osei Kofi, the status of the Gallery is currently in limbo as it had to move out of Lonrho House. And what remains of Watatu’s collection (including unpaid-for art by Kenyans) now sits in the Ongata Rongai Police Station awaiting Kofi’s return from a fundraising mission abroad.


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