Embracing the diversity of African cultural heritage through work of art

Batik artwork
Some of the batik artwork done by Lawrence Wanga on display at Maasai market in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Michael Wandati.

For ages, amidst all odds and challenges of life, artists dedicate their skills and talent in pursuit of refreshing and maintaining the gradually fading traditions and cultures of Africa.

A great number of people like the wide selection of African hand-made artifacts for the fact that; they are uniquely and creatively made by our very own local artists. This can be that beautiful painting or batik art piece mounted on your wall, the treasured carving or sculpture strategically placed in your office, that elegant stylish African attire you occasionally dress in or even those exquisite beaded pieces of jewelry you wear.

Very few people want to known the profiles of the people behind production of the treasured piece of art they own. Rarely do they take their time to inquire how it existed and the challenges artists go through in the art industry. Instead their focus is carried away on acquiring a piece, which results in lacking background knowledge about the artist and the artifact altogether.

Just recently, as an art fanatic, I decided to travel to Maasai market in Nairobi to get a few art pieces. To my surprise, the welcoming at the entrance was by a great deal of African art and craft hand-works depicting the cultures and reflecting the immense efforts of dedicated artists, who preserve the cultural heritage of African ways of life. This included hierarchical relationships among different ethnic groups, distinct ways of traditional houses and constructions, types of musical instruments, the rich ceremonies and festivals which included the rich diversity cuisine and ways in which food is prepared, preserved, served and consumed.

As I walked at the market, from a distance I was attracted by some brightly colored beautiful art pieces of batiks and paintings hanging on a line. Others were spread down as I approached the location. Immediately after, I got cornered by roughly 10 people. They were shouting from all positions asking if I wanted to buy anything.

In that horrible situation, I Embracing the diversity of African cultural heritage through work of art For ages, amidst all odds and challenges of life, artists dedicate their skills and talent in pursuit of refreshing and maintaining the gradually fading traditions and cultures of Africa curiously demanded to see and deal with the artist. “Who makes these pieces?” I asked. Hastily a dark-skinned man raised his voice, holding one batik piece in his hands. “I am the artist, and these are my art works you can see I have autographed them with my name Wanga,” he responded. He then flashed out his wallet showing me his Identification card with his name Lawrence Wanga Oniang’o, who then later in the conversation introduced me to his painting artist colleague Cosmos Makonde.

On realizing I had known the artists, the people surrounding us slowly dispersed. Being so inquisitive I asked what role they played in the market.

“They are brokers who pose as artists, who in turn sell our artifacts at high prices possessing the greatest share while we artists who spend hours toiling in struggle, get peanuts out of sales,” Makonde explained.

“For sure this is a major problem for artists here in the market. Many copies give us trouble in selling our originals,” Wanga added. As we conversed, I got interested in knowing briefly their background and how they decided to venture into art as a career. Wanga, who is in his mid 30s, was from a deprived family of 16 children.

His father was from the old culture having three wives, her mother being the second. “When I discovered I couldn’t join secondary school, I looked at my interest of art and searched for any handwork I could do,” he recalled. Luckily, Wanga found an artist friend who assisted him for free when he was 15. He worked for him for three years before going out on his own in 1998.

”I did not lose hope as many youths of today do on realizing they come from a destitute family background, Instead I worked with zeal on reaching where I am today,” he advised. Makonde on the other hand, realized his talent while still in primary school. He actively participated in art competitions, winning a lot of accolades for the work submitted. “I had interest in pursuing my education to advanced levels but I couldn’t get that chance for lack of sufficient school fees,” said Makonde.

I requested if I could join them at the workshop to at least get a glimpse of how batiks and paintings are done. It was agreed we meet on Monday in Riruta Satellite where the workshop is located. I was intrigued on seeing such a small workshop producing such exquisite art pieces. “The size of a working place does not matter. Talent and passion displayed by someone in his work is what matters,” Wanga said.

“In doing batik you need some materials and tools with you: a 100 percent white muslin cloth, dyes, wax, source of heat, melting pot, absorbent sheets of paper, iron, containers for mixing dyes and an easel,” Wanga explained.

With all in place, he started sketching several pieces with images of traditional African scenes. He then carefully started the waxing and dying process, where each color is brushed on beginning with the light-toned colors to the dark-toned. “Waxing prevents dye from penetrating parts you want un-dyed,” Wanga cautioned.

When the fabric was almost wholly waxed and dried, it is placed between sheets of absorbent paper and a hot iron applied. The sheets of paper absorb the wax. They are replaced by fresh sheets until the wax is removed. At this point the final design is seen clearly for the first time.

“Genuine batiks take a lot of time to produce, since each art I do is a masterpiece not like the ones in screen printing where mass production is the idea,” Wanga noted. He makes about 20 pieces in a week.

Makonde briefly took me through the art of doing knife oil paintings. “This kind of art is usually done on canvas material using a palette knife to mix and putting paint on the canvas. Then by using a painting knife you apply paint by smearing, using strokes to create direction as you follow the ground or object planes with the stroking making sure you give the paste time to dry as you continue,” he explained. Finally the images visualized. They had a rough but an artistic feeling finish on it. Through work of art by the two artists, they have clearly shown the appreciation of the ancient African cultures, nature and lifestyle practices that are now slowly fading away. Their work strongly portrays gender equity where roles of men and women in ancient African society are clearly specified out.

While men were out there herding livestock or hunting, the women were busy harvesting or preparing food and also taking care of the children at the homesteads. In some art pieces done by Wanga and Makonde, they clearly illustrate images of women from the river to fetch water while others from collecting firewood carrying their kids on their backs.

Through the art pieces, is a clear indicator that men in the past used to work doing several domestic chores specifically allocated to them as their responsibility. No one overlooked the other in letting them do everything which is different from today where men always advocate that domestic chores are only allocated to women.

This kind of nostalgic art pieces, clearly reminds us of the past events where traditional ceremonies and cultural rituals and practices were occasionally done. In this era, it is being termed as `a thing of the past´. To Wanga and Makonde, it is a campaign to preserving the ancient traditions and ethnic cultures and ways of life.

Through this, it has gained them Local and International recognition from the work they display, enabling them attend several art festivals to exhibit their pieces. They get orders to ship art pieces in bulks as far as; Europe, America, Asia, Australia and to some parts of Africa.

The names may not be household names in Kenya, obviously because of poor art appreciation and marketing hardships experienced in the region. Many artists I have met in Africa, give sentiments that most people do not support local artists, instead they prefer purchasing art made from overseas countries.

A word of advice to aspiring artists out there; talent, passion, dedication and perseverance in the field of art, surpasses all difficulties encountered in the industry. It is just a matter of self-realization and knowing where you want to be and what you are doing for the future generations to come. For Wanga and Makonde, their art is for a course to maintain the gradually fading cultures and traditions of Africa, how about you?

By Michael Wandati