Legendary artist who gave art the African perspective

Elimo Njau, legendary artist, director of the famous Paa ya Paa Arts Gallery, turned 84 last week. PHOTO: COURTESY

I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other

species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There

never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than

white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences

         - David Hume

Elimo Njau, legendary artist, director of the famous Paa ya Paa Arts Gallery, turned 84 last week.

Renowned painter, writer and academic Prof Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui organised an auspicious event to celebrate this historical personage together with his African-American wife, the artist-poet Philda Ragland-Njau. Elimo has straddled the Eastern African artistic landscape like a colossus: born in Tanzania; educated in Uganda; lives in Kenya. The celebration preceded with prayers conducted by a Baptist minister, had all the mark of a valedictory benediction: at 84, we could all say, it’s alright Grandpa, for you to embark on a new career of retiring from public life - as it was bespoke of Wole Soyinka four years ago! Yet as Prof Orchardson-Mazrui observed, “in fact the event has given Elimo a new lease of life. It has helped lay yet another stone on the foundation laid by Elimo and Paa ya Paa for the art of East Africa.” human rights lawyer and poet Pheroze Nowrojee, guest speaker, describes Elimo as “a transforming figure not only in art; one cannot write a political history of East Africa of the ‘60s without the record of the extensive part that art and literature, theatre and poetry, debate and disputation, played in those years of change. In the middle, there’s Elimo in many capacities.”

One of the few pioneering black intellectuals from Makerere, Elimo, had a more contemplative mind regarding the role of the intellectual in the new post-independence Africa. Hence, together with friends and colleagues, they founded Paa ya Paa Arts Gallery as a space for artistic productions and intellectual discourses.

Elimo, one could say, chose a noble, but solemn vocation, art, practised by his progenitors in the beginning - the earliest vestiges of which are today in our possession. Without art, much of what we know about evolution of human civilisation would be inconceivable today. Here then is the mischief of introducing this essay with that irritatingly specious statement by David Hume. Lest you missed what Hume said: The African did not produce any art! Hume is not alone. Hugh Trevor-Roper may even close his eyes from evidential material from Africa; its ancient kingdoms, literatures and arts included, and claim, quite spectacularly, that Africa did not have history: “perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach!” A claim deflated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who draws from Africa’s pre-colonial history: “to disabuse Hugh Trevor-Roper and others like him of the false notion that, from its infancy, the universe of human evolution was made in the image of Europe.”

Among the ancient Egyptians and the classical Malians who built the libraries of Timbuktu, there is to be found a prodigious body of literature and art that defied the looting and desecration that the continent and her people have been subjected to through millennia. These texts, engraved on tombs, on papyrus, on stele, as complete works or manuscripts, by Africans, are symbolic of the aspirations, the fears, the triumphs of the day, and the defilement for which they today stand in defiance, a recurring theme in Elimo’s paintings. Thus Pheroze writes, “All tyrannies are temporary” so that in Elimo’s painting “is the promise that hope is constantly around before and after birth.”

Writing, therefore, whether in hieroglyphics, hieratic, and demotic, is one artistic mode that the ancient African used to document his existence. But there is an even earlier archival library of artistic expression: painting. The excavations of rock shelters spread on the African continent; unearthing magnificent and prodigious rock art in pristine Africa provides us with insights into the evolution of human civilisation. These artworks, encaustic and tempera, that can be analysed, dated, and interpreted, are very ancient, predating Africa’s conquest and colonisation. The Senegalese historian and scientist Cheikh Anta Diop, arguably the greatest 20th century African scholar, dedicated his entire academic career to situating the centrality of Africa’s contribution to world civilisation. The retrieval exercise of Africa’s past is not a journey into nostalgia and fantasy; its nobility is always to give pride and confidence in the African, the achievements of his forefathers, thus inspire original thought.

The evolution of the earliest form of art, rock painting, depicting animal and human beings, in antiquity, is divided into three stages: the Bubalian period noted for paintings of hunters in pursuit of wild beasts; the Bovidian period, a pastoral, quiet, sedentary life; and the Equidian period that introduces transport, the chariot, the cart that is drawn by a speeding horse. Belgian priest and historian Fr Luc Croegaert who is hard pressed to concede the African’s genius reports that this new phenomenon was brought on the continent by the Aegean descendants (Greeks): “’The ‘Bovidian,’ leaders of quiet cattle, must have been astounded by the sudden and impetuous apparition of these carts and their surprise is evident in the spontaneous drawing.” It is the African who bequeaths humanity with knowledge of these changes through his ‘drawing!” Thus the artist as a chronicler has contemplated and left a patrimony.

Did not have history

That ‘impetuous apparition’, the arrival of the white man on the continent, disturbs the black man’s ‘quiet’ life, his norms, a subject well articulated by Chinua Achebe in his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, and one that will be found again in Elimo Njau’s legendary murals at the Murang’a Cathedral. A giant, sharp, alert, wisdom encased in a rare persona, Elimo is as poetic and titillating, even in drawing! The murals are masterpieces. Although those murals were created during the state of emergency, Pheroze says: “the colours are fresh and bright right now as they were that long time ago day and this is a reminder to us that the murals and Elimo’s work there are also, a professional and technical achievement. Elimo is an artist; he remains an element of force on the terrain of that time. He’s wholly original, he has painted like no one else, and no one else after him has been able to paint like him! His voice is distinct and instantly recognisible by the power that comes to those who can create beauty.”

The murals are as immemorial as Elimo himself. These murals, bearing a hidden revolutionary glint, interrogative and introspective, today, will in the future remain a battleground for scholars’ and artists’ interpretations. The murals may even be a canvas for the homeguards, “still wilding power” to continue the project of rewriting Kenya’s history, for what would you expect from a nation that is famous for collective amnesia? But the murals are immortal; Pheroze has written delightful and sweeping poetry on each one of the five murals, re-immortalising Elimo in Harold Miller’s book, The Murang’a Murals. In these poems, Pheroze describes the murals, reflects on them, and their impact. In the poem, The Last Supper, Pheroze writes: “the person about to be arrested is not alone; but those who think like him are presently sleeping; tomorrow, some will discuss the arrest contextually, and later several books, especially from those now asleep, like John and Mathew, and one or two others, will become bestsellers – insider’s account!” So, one will “see Kenya twice in time on those murals!” Happy birthday mjomba Elimo Njau!

- The writer is the President of PEN Kenya Centre, a poet and essayist