Art still stirred me but in those fervent, confusing and rather euphoric decades, flowers or landscapes or even wild life seemed hugely inappropriate. But I could not figure out what other subject to portray so I worked on a painting in oils of a collection of Bohra material culture; ‘Bohra’ is the community I was born into.
And then in 1981 I came across a Viva magazine which had on its cover a painting of Monica Njeri, the Mombasa prostitute who was murdered by a United States marine. The artist was Kibachia Gatu. Perhaps some readers have not read this history; it was the days when US man-of-wars regularly docked into Kilindini Harbour and US marines made their presence felt in the port town. It was one of these who had killed a young woman, a mother of two, in a lodging house. The teenage sailor was immediately whisked back to his ship and kept under US jurisdiction. A Mombasa court was hurriedly convened, the judge was a white man, the marine was fined a laughable penalty of Ksh 500 and ‘deported’ back to the US.
This incident and its depiction ignited the feelings I had about feminism and imperialism. And now I had found a direction for my artistic endeavours: recording Kenya’s resistance history.
My first painting, not unsurprisingly, in this genre was ‘Women’s Oppression and Liberation’. In it I depicted the various aspects of social life which oppress women and the need for a united women’s movement helped by the guerrilla woman fighter to break the chains of imperialism.
I had by this time become involved in activities aimed at raising public awareness of the deteriorating political situation in our country. The August 1 1982 coup, when an attempt to oust the increasingly dictatorial Moi-KANU regime failed; was followed by the imposition of a de-jure single party system and an extremely repressive era when it became well-nigh impossible to engage in public debate or write freely. In this period of gloom and fear, I turned to art to remind both myself and fellow Kenyans of our history of resistance.
Thus I had impulsively launched into a project of protest art. The latter is best described as art produced by activists or social movements which highlight injustice, prejudice, good versus evil, rich versus poor and all matters of social, political and economic discord. The aim is to raise public awareness and to promote human rights and social change. Protest art keeps the discussions termed subversive or seditious alive during the times when state suppression is at its highest. The medium can be paintings, graffiti, signs, banners, murals, posters, and other printed materials.
I did interact briefly with the Nairobi artists who, in 1983, had launched the Sisi kwa Sisi movement but was not able to meet with them on a regular basis. The Kiswahili phrase meant ‘For us and by us’; as Etale Sukuro says: ‘it was the first major effort by Kenyan artists as a group to take Kenyan art with Kenyan themes to the Kenyan people’. However, I did adopt their method of sharing my art work with the people by displaying it, well captioned, in social halls, school compounds and church venues with the objective of motivating catalysts for change.
I chose to paint in oils on canvas. My next topic was of Mekatilili, the elderly Giriama woman who was politically active at the coast in 1911-1914. Her message to her people was to resist European culture and to refuse to be recruited by the colonists for working on their projects or fighting their fellow Africans. The painting shows her, an elderly Giriama woman addressing a baraza (gathering). The people have brought donations of food, etc to help in the preparation of arms; on the sides are young men fighting the colonists; making arrows; two medicine women administering the oath; Wanje Mradikola, a relative, sitting by a drum and providing the stamp of male authority; the lush countryside, thatched huts and the Tana River capture the environment. Some of the research for this piece of art included a visit to a group of elderly Giriama who graciously enacted a warrior dance in their village and showed me the various costumes then worn.
To the next painting: In Mombasa, I had for some months been visiting a Taita mother and her children in the large working class area of Kongowea across the Nyali Bridge. Lucy was the only remaining tenant on a plot which once had had six Swahili-type houses i.e. until the day a ‘developer’ appeared waiving a title deed and demolished the houses. Lucy stayed on in a house without doors/windows and a leaking roof while she pursued a court case demanding her rights for a whole year before finally accepting defeat.
‘Demolition in Kongowea’ shows Lucy and her children in a partly demolished house supported by protesting villagers. Kongowea neighbours the wealthy Nyali Estate which houses the rich, including many expatriates, and the painting highlights the realities of class differences – the expanse of the expatriate’s garden v the crowded living conditions; water in a swimming pool v water being sold in debes/jerry cans; the expatriate under the cover of Imperialism v the villagers without any support from the court, the district authority or the police force. The ‘developer’s’ bull dozer in the bottom left hand corner is further reinforced by cash, imperialist ethos and the local police.
Makhan Singh is the founder of Kenya’s trade union movement. In ‘Makhan Singh leads Trade Unionists’ the procession by South Asian workers is taken from an actual photograph of the event as it took place along Government Road (now Moi Avenue). Most of the buildings shown in this 1937 picture are still standing today. The demonstrators are carrying placards demanding higher wages and better working conditions; they are written in English, Kiswahili and Gujerati. The artist’s imagination imposed the colonial environment: A visibly alarmed British Governor; his wife in a rickshaw being pulled by a driver in rags who in turn is being garlanded by a sympathetic South Asian woman; African policemen roughing-up Kenyans; white observers and colonists with guns at the ready on a terrace.
‘Tourism and its Negative Aspects’ was painted in 1983 and was based on the murder story of Monica Njeri (mentioned earlier) but also had two other aspects. On the left is Monica Njeri being attacked by two naked marines in a lodging, the centre piece is of a national park with tourist vans, Anglo-American vultures represent imperialism and a fence keeps out a peasant couple with their grossly underfed cattle. On the right is a fisher family deprived of their sustenance by the fenced off beach access. The child is hungry, the mother is distraught and the father is refusing to take the money offered by his daughter who is being led away by a marine waving dollars. A menacing man-of-war ship sails in the background.
Women hawkers who sell vegetables/fruits on the streets render a much valued service to commuters but they are regularly harassed by city council askaris (guards) who arrest them and confiscate their goods. In May 1979 the women on Tom Mboya Street decided that ‘enough was enough’. They filled their ciondos (sacks) with stones and placed a few vegetables on top as a decoy. When the askaris arrived they were pelted with stones and had to beat a hasty retreat. Posters in the background promote milk and discourage alcohol, cigarettes, soda and bleaching creams.
A painting in acrylics, ‘Hazards in Education’ depicts music, films, miraa, pesticides, poverty, non-performing civil servants, Anglo-American content and rich sugar daddies as distractions or obstacles to a successful educational system. It also highlights the problem of university graduates being asked for work experience in a job interview.
A poster of black and red ink drawings and titled ‘Washujaa Waesia – Wazalendo wa Kenya’ draws attention to Pio Gama Pinto, Jaswant Singh Bharaj, Makhan Singh, Ambu Patel, Lila Patel, Sitaram Acharya and Manilal Desai. Brief captions in Kiswahili explain their patriotic contributions to Kenya’s freedom struggle.
Our group activities included the production of T-shirts, calendars and greeting cards with images of Mekatilili, Koitalel, Dedan Kimathi, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, motherhood and women’s labour.