FIRST GENERATION NGECHA ARTIST INSPIRED GENERATIONS TO COME
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
When a comprehensive history of contemporary Kenyan art is finally written, one man who must not be forgotten is Francis Mbugua.
Described as a ‘guiding force’ among younger generations of Ngecha village artists by Kitengela Glass artist Nani Croze who considered him a creative colleague, Mbugua, 71, died peacefully in his sleep last Wednesday, November 20th.
Mbugua had worked with Croze since the mid-1980s when she and Dr. Eric Krystall began running annual art workshops, sponsored by the NGO, Family Planning Private Sector, to create paintings that carried the FPPS message.
A minimum of a dozen Kenyan-based artists including Mbugua, Jak Katarikawe, Charles Sekano, Etale Sukuro, and Wanyu Brush among others created powerful paintings that carried the family planning message and subsequently were used as monthly markers for FPPS calendars that went all over Kenya.
Croze also worked with Mbugua on numerous wall mural projects including his refurbishing all eleven murals at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
One reason Croze loved working with Mbugua was because of his professionalism. “He was dedicated to doing quality work and he was consistent about getting a job done,” she said.
Croze was also happy to be collaborating with Kenyan artists, although she admits she’d lost track of Mbugua in the last few years.
She didn’t know, for instance, that one of Ngecha’s first visual artists was mugged and badly beaten a few years back and that his health deteriorated after that.
His demise follows closely on the heels of another so-called first generation contemporary Kenyan artist, Samwel Wanjau who actually started sculpting in the 1950s while Mbugua cited 1965 on his hand-written CV as the year he began painting. That was the year he had gone to live in Eastleigh with a family friend Edwin Githire.
According to Githire’s cousin, James Mbugua, Edwin is the one who introduced Francis to the visual arts, having himself been inspired by Congolese painters who had fled their country after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the coup d’etats led by General Mobutu Sese.
“Mbugua was also inspired by the Congolese artists who showed him how to paint using a palette knife and how to create works of art using banana fibre,” James added.
Francis and James were not blood brothers, but they got close once James came to Nairobi in 1967 to help market his cousin’s paintings. His skill as a hawker of visual art came in handy after the two Mbuguas moved out of Eastleigh and went to stay with Francis’ mother who had a City Council house in Jericho.
“It was there that both men began painting and making [banana] fibre art,” said Ngecha artist King Dodge Kangoroti who had heard the Mbuguas’ story so often that he knew it by heart.
“After they completed a set of [oil and fibre] paintings, the two used to take them everywhere from Paa ya Paa [when it was still on Koinange Street], Gallery Watatu, and African Heritage to estates like Kilileshwa and Muthaiga where they would go door to door with their art,” Dodge recalled.
“We were even arrested for trespassing in Timau and taken to stay 21 days in a Nanyuki jail as police thought we were cattle rustlers,” said Mbugua James who eventually went back to Ngecha where he had a small farm, leaving Francis to fend for himself.
It wasn’t any easier to be an artist in those days than it is today, especially as so-called self-taught Kenyan artists were hardly recognized.
But Mbugua went on to inspire many Ngecha artists to follow in his footsteps, including ones sometimes called ‘first generation’ Kenyan artists [like Sane Wadu and Wanyu Brush] who in fact, had come into the visual art world years after Mbugua began painting and also creating clay works comparable to those of Edward Njenga’s, the Eastleigh-based social worker who created ceramic figurines depicting the everyday lives of poor people from Eastlands.
Mbugua exhibited in the 80s and 90s with Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu. “But he worked with many other people,” said Kangoroti who is one of the younger generation of Ngecha artists who fell under the spell that Mbugua cast over a multitude of younger Ngecha artists.
Following the establishment of the RaMoMa Museum in 2000, Mbugua ran a number of workshops at Ngecha funded by either RaMoMa, Ford Foundation or Schaffner’s husband, the late Adama Diawara.
Mbugua’s influence was apparent late last week as the news of his demise spread like wildfire throughout Ngecha.
What he may best be remembered for was summarized by his old friend James who noted:
“Mbugua loved art and up until he got sick, he could be found at home doing his painting every day and night.”