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 contemporay 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 artistc 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 nonwelfare 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.
Divya Haria puts finishing touches to her pot
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.
Teresia Wambui of Rescue Dada Centre and Lydia Galavu at the pottery workshop
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