Sane Wadu is an honest man. He is also a commendable artist who traveled from Naivasha last weekend with his wife and fellow artist Eunice to participate in a program organized by the new Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI).
He could hardly have been absent when the event was entirely dedicated to him and his art. Or rather, it was to mark the end of a complete exhibition on him entitled “I Hope So: Sane Wadu” and to celebrate his 40 years of artistic practice.
As the NCAI prepares for its next exhibition, the Institute has also distinguished itself as an exceptional arts institution, as it is rare for a gallery to host an afternoon sit-down feast to celebrate an artist and his or her creative efforts.
But as its founder, Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage has often explained, the Institute is not so much a gallery as a not-for-profit institution that aims to embody the totality of contemporary Kenyan art, including its history and artistic roots. .
So what better place to start than with one of Kenya’s premier contemporary artists, Sane Wadu. But at the party, Sane quite honestly admitted, “When I came to Watatu Gallery in 1984, I saw the art of people like Kaigwa [Gakunju]Fred Oduya, Theresa Musoke, Sukuro [Etale]and John Diang’a.
“When I first brought my paintings to Watatu Gallery, I was told that my style didn’t match theirs,” he told the business daily. And that’s when I knew Sane was an honest man. He wasn’t asking for more than he was at the time.
“I took my artwork home and decided to figure out what kind of art they were talking about,” he said.
It wasn’t until two years later that Ruth Schaffner came to Kenya and bought out the owners of the gallery, its founders Yony Waite and Rhodia Mann. Yony was happy to give up ownership as she was looking for someone to take over running the gallery since that wasn’t her thing. Doing his art was and continues to be.
As soon as Sane returned to Watatu in 1986, he was immediately embraced by Ruth, and the rest is history. He paved the way for her to push what she saw as a “new trend” in the global art world.
It was ‘primitive’ African art, she seemed to say because she didn’t want to show or support artists with a sophisticated art education (although she made an exception with Kaigwa).
But she saw Kenyan art as something that would soon become the “cutting edge” of contemporary African art. And Sane would be on that edge!
That’s why NCAI chose Sane and his 40-year career as their first exhibit and why they wanted to close it with a resounding celebration and feast.
Sane, who had been doing arts and crafts since elementary school, decided after graduating from secondary school in Kinangari to become a teacher. But then he became a clerk, then got into acting and writing plays for a theater group made up of his former students who performed in schools across the country.
“I was even in several Voice of Kenya [TV] shows,” he said. But then, in 1984, he met an old friend who painted a mural. When the friend finished the mural, Sane asked if he could use his leftover paint. These are what he used to create the paintings [on plastic paper] which he first took to Watatu who was rejected.
But Sane persisted. He had taken the rejection as a challenge to grow and develop his style. So when he met Ruth, he was happy to take advantage of her guidance and support and the opportunities that opened up for him working with the Gallery.
It also turned out that Sane and Eunice were living at the time in Ngecha, a village that had already started generating many talented up-and-coming artists. Ruth took an interest in each of them, so much so that she planned to build an Ngecha art center. But Kuona Trust was designed using his blueprints instead. It’s a long story.
Sadly Ruth died the following year, but Sane and Eunice had already established their own Sane Wadu Trust and moved to Naivasha where they now run a children’s art program. They also played a key role in helping the curators…and his assistant…put together a multimedia retrospective of his life and art.