Here is a Christmas present idea for you. Last weekend I went to Kitengela Glass to pick up the Kenya Arts Diary 2019 and have a chat with Nani Croze, the inspiration behind it.
The 2019 edition is the ninth in the series of diaries since the first one for 2011. That was Nani’s brainchild, too, though she was working with a very dedicated team of volunteers. Two of the original team are still working with her: Margaretta wa Gacheru and Eric Krystall.
I guess far less people use a print diary these days, and rely on their phones and computers for recording appointments, phone and pin numbers — all the bits of crucial information that are too many to store in the mind. I’m old enough to be one of those who still have to write such things down. If I lost my little black Filofax, I would be in big trouble.
But the Arts Diary is a lovely thing to have, even if you don’t write in it. It features 71 artists, mainly from Kenya but also some from Tanzania and Uganda — and most of them are young. That is what Nani wanted to achieve when she started on the diary in 2010 — a publication for showcasing the work of young artists.
“When I first came to Kenya in 1968,” she said. “People talked of art from West Africa; it was as though there was little or no art in East Africa. But there was then — and there is certainly much more now.”
All the featured artists in the diary have a page, with an example of their work and a short profile of their experiences and achievements. There is also a directory of art galleries in Kenya. I was surprised at the number: 41 of them. The diary lists 19 cultural centres around the country and five restaurant galleries in and around Nairobi. Perhaps the 2020 diary could also identify some hotels that have good displays of art; I am thinking of the Kampala Serena and the Sankara here in Nairobi.
It was not an easy job to decide which of the 71 works to feature here. In the end I chose “The Kissing Couple” by the mixed media artist and sculptor, Irene Wanjiru. Like so many of the artists in the diary, hers is an interesting story. She comes from a family of wood carvers, but she had no formal training. It was when she attended a Kuona Wasanii Workshop in the late 1990s that she herself began carving.
Irene works with both stone and wood — often using tree stumps. She has attended a number of artist residencies in the US. She exhibits regularly there, and some of her public works can be seen in Texas and Vermont.
Outside Nairobi, she has constructed her own “glass house” with recycled bottles, wooden poles and cement. She says she was inspired to do this by what Nani Croze has done at Kitengela Glass.
And there’s another idea for those of you who will be staying around Nairobi at Christmas. Nani’s Kitengela Glass is a magical place: a place of Hobbit-like buildings, stained glass, beads, and the weirdest of sculptures. You can also visit the next-door glass blowing centre of her son, Anselm.
I notice Nani calls herself “Mother Nature” these days. It’s certainly true that she has become a mother to an amazing collection of animals and birds. So if you go there with children, they will love being with all the horses, donkeys, sheep, cows, camels, pigs, ostriches, ducks, geese and other poultry. And I counted nine very friendly dogs.
If you want to know more about Nani’s place and how to get there, look at her website, www.kitengelaglassart.com. And the Arts Diary is on sale for Sh1,650 at bookshops such as BookStop and Textbook Centre, as well as at art galleries.
John Fox is managing director of iDC