Artist Portrait: Elimo Njau

Filmed by Matteo Lonardi, Commissioned by Haus der Kunst and NCAI

Elimo Njau’s life and work epitomise trans-East African migration; born in Tanzania in 1932 and formally trained as an artist at Makere University’s Margaret Trowell Fine Art School in Uganda, he later made Kenya his home, establishing the renowned Paa Ya Paa Centre in Ridgeways, Nairobi.

In this video, he discusses his early occupation with portraiture and the influence of his family on his foray into drawing and later on, on his decision to pursue further education and studies in art under Margaret Trowell. He discusses an early commission, undertaken at no cost, given his belief in the sacrosanct nature of his practice and gift, creating taking the a sweeping mural in a Cathedral in Muranga, in memory of people who died for their faith at the height of the Mau Mau Emergency. Through idyllic panels, depicting pastoral life, he crafts his narrative around the life of Christ, situated, located in and inspired by Kenyan landscapes, and specifically the Chania Waterfalls.

As an early institution-builder, Njau’s role in creating artistic and cultural exchange within and around post-independence Nairobi and Kenya are significant. Founding Paa Ya Paa in 1960, it was a mainstay and lifeline for artists and intellectuals alike including Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liong and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, offering a space to gather, feeding the artistic energy that define Kenya into the 60s and 70s. Additionally, Njau and Paa Ya Paa created a contact zone between cultural producers in Nairobi and internationally renowned figures, hosting Sidney Poitier, Langston Hughes and Alice Neel, amongst others.

In 1998, a fire ravaged through Njau’s home and much of the gallery, destroying his works, amongst the work of other artists; with the fire disappeared a part of Kenyan history – though some of his work remains, the once towering figure within East African art and his story and legacy survive. Though his sunset years have coloured by loss, and currently living in a derelict and decrepit house and gallery, Njau’s staying power and relevance to the development of art and cultural heritage in East Africa will be continue to be felt in the years to come.

#MwiliAkiliRoho is part of 'Michael Armitage, The Paradise Edict' at Haus der Kunst and runs till 14 February 2021. It features works by Meek Gichugu, Jak Katarikawe, Asaph Ng'ethe Macua, Theresa Musoke, Elimo Njau, and Sane Wadu. 

Writing by Mukami Kuria

©Haus der Kunst ©NCAI

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