Rather than wait for manna to drop from heaven, a group of women in Nairobi are educating one another on the use of art and craft for survival. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Hawa Women Artists are fusing traditional craft techniques with contemporary art to create innovative artwork that challenge conventional concepts and definitions of art. As expected, their creation revolve around self identity, women’s multiple roles, oppression, empowerment and the cycles and rhythms of women’s lives. Last April, the women held a six day training workshop in pottery at Kibichiku Pottery Workshop in Wangige after holding similar training in Meru (banana fibre mozaic) and Kitui (calabash and gouard mozaic) late last year and early this year, respectively.
Among the things they are learning and imparting on one another are the making of pots, energy-conserving stoves (jikos), flower vases and interior design decor made of clay. They will later in the year hold more training workshops in tapestry and other crafts associated with women. Founded two years ago, Hawa Artists have held two annual exhibitions and given proceeds from them to charity. The first to benefit from the sweat and creativity of the women was Catholic Relief Services who got the entire Sh80000 (US$1000) collection and used it for famine relief in the Rift Valley. Last year, the money was donated to Rescue Dada, a rehabilitation centre for street girls.
Besides helping equip one another with artistic skills, the women also train in marketing, management, income-generation and communication skills. This year, Hawa will sensitise Kenyans on the hardships of aging in a non-welfare state like Kenya.
Their annual exhibition will feature work on aging. But before then, they will hold a lifetime achievement exhibition in honour of one of Kenya’s prominent artists, collagist Rosemary Karuga, in June. Unlike any other grouping in Kenya, Hawa brings together all kinds of women-the famous and the not so famous, formally trained and self-taught, those struggling and the established ones. They do all kinds of art with the common denominator being female. But this is not a female only affair as some men are also working with women. They say they use material that is within reach of women and the items made from it can be sold easily.
Lydia Galavu, the coordinator of the group, says besides empowering women economically and socially, her group is also helping preserve culture and traditional knowledge and skills which are being forgotten as the older generation pass on.
While sculptor Chelenge van Rampelberg says art enriches a woman’s life as it enables her to express herself and communicate with society, politician Beth Mugo notes that art is a powerful tool for expressing one’s emotions and retaining one’s cultural identity.
“Art is a powerful tool to agitate for the desired social and political transformation and must accurately address the changing socio-economic and political dimensions of life by focusing on issues like corruption, bad governance, ethnic disharmony and the pursuit for democratic ideals,” she says. Touching on the the controversial concept of ‘abstract’ art, Mrs Mugo challenges artists to demystify it as “art should be easily understood without necessarily being simplistic.” Mugo admits that the commercial value of art puts artists in a moral dilemma but asks them to strike a balance between creating a better image of Africa and serving the tastes of their clients, most of whom are white.
The MP urges the government and the donor community to sensitise and empower artists on the benefits of Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the value of computer technology in marketing their products besides getting rid of unscrupulous middlemen who fleece them. Although AGOA provides a large American market for sub-Saharan African products and economies, she says the envisaged benefits cannot reach small businesspeople like artists as they cannot raise the capital required. She challenges the government to give them grants to enable them venture into the American market and rise above the unemployment, retrenchment and poverty that is plaguing the country. The money, she says, could come from the fund allocated to small enterprises in last year (2001)’s budget.
She calls for regional artists to come together to increase the bulk of their wares in order to benefit from AGOA.