As one enters Kenyatta National Hospital, one is greeted by WAHU, a mother figure giving a convivial atmosphere to the institution and meant to help hasten the healing process of patients and comfort anxious people over the health of their loved ones.
Standing at East Africa’s leading referral and teaching health institution, WAHU not only lights up the hearts of patients, visitors and staff coming to the hospital but also comforts the afflicted from their ailments and worries. WAHU, who has been at the institution for four years, does her work with devotion and dedication. With her bigger than life stature, mighty hands spread out like a welcoming mother, with nature’s mesh of cobwebs and grass forming the internal organs of the woman, calm African face that obliviously hides Asian and European faces behind and glittering objects of artistry all over her regalia in the backdrop of a well-groomed landscape, WAHU is a sobering sight that greets all that come to and from this hospital.
Mama WAHU is a triple-headed gigantic sculpture. And how did WAHU come to be? This was a creation of several women artists using various media as an illustration of the artistic power of collaboration. These artists met in Kitengela at the outskirts of Nairobi in 2001 for a Women Artists’ Workshop where they “felt the need to do something together as female artists of the world for the world.” And with ‘women’ and the ‘world’ in their minds, they came up with ‘Women of Africa and the World Unite’ (W.A.W.U)” pronounced as WAHU, a common local woman’s name” as their clarion call. It was not a coincidence that WAHU was “planted” at the East African regional referral hospital. Her presence here is meant to give hope to patients, their loved ones and friends besides encouraging them to seek voluntary counseling and testing for HIV/Aids.
Tabitha Waithira Mburu, one of the creators of Mama Wahu, says, “We unanimously agreed upon a woman sculpture to be strategically placed in any of the country’s leading institutions.” The artist who signs her paintings as Tabitha wa Thuku, adds that KNH was chosen because the artists had the desire to integrate visual arts into the community besides encouraging Kenyans to be tested for HIV in the then emerging Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) centres in the East African nation where over 2 million people are HIV positive. “Her presence here is meant to give hope to patients, their loved ones and friends,” says Mburu who recently represented Kenya at Visual Olympics in Athens, Greece.
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Through WAHU, art has not only been brought to the community, but has been taken where the community needs it at its best. Giving Wahu another look after getting an overview of its creation and why it is situated there, one is awakened to the true feeling of using talent where it really is needed. This sculpture, according to the footnotes of Nani Croze, another member of WAHU’s creation team, has three faces of ‘an African, an Asian and European woman showing how women are the same despite, tribal, social and racial differences.’ ‘Her torso, with powerful arms and fragile (glass) heart,’ the footnotes explain, ‘demonstrates how she can embrace all humanity but still (remain) humane for it.’ Sparsely covering the heart are barely covered breasts that curiously suggests the artists’ impression of ‘motherhood.’ “Her skirt, made from various media, exhibits the many aspects of womanhood,” says Croze in whose Kitengela Glass workshop brought together the creators of WAHU. Nani Croze (Germany), Danda Jaroljmek (United States), Prima Shah (India), Mburu, Maggie Otieno and Mary Ogembo (Kenya) and Julie Rose has shown clearly that accomplishments along the way are in most cases more important than the dash down or up the hill. WAHU was therefore designed and made by women artists in Kenya and the world, each bringing her piece bearing her own face and story.
Don’t you like my creation of animals of fantasy?
Don’t you like my creation of animals of fantasy?
They agreed on the three faces to represent Africans, Europeans and Asians. Healing, which has for a long time been left to doctors, herbalists, magicians and God, has now received a helping hand from unexpected quarters: artists. As days passed, WAHU’s call became louder and louder not only for the women of the world’s unity, but also for more artists to unite and do more for the community. Her echo reached the Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art (RaMoMA), in Nairobi, drawing them closer to using their art in bringing about healing. Operating under the umbrella of ‘healing through art’, they are ‘like WAHU’determined to use art in hastening up healing among patients. Pulled together by their love for children, the artists are running two projects at the hospital’s children wards making the walls awash with marvelous paintings and pictures.
This voluntary project is aimed at uplifting the spirits of ailing children and helping create an alternative atmosphere different from that associated with hospitals. This gives the sick children ‘mainly cancer and eye patients’comfort and love enabling them to forget their pain, even if momentarily. The project, said to have started with about forty children, has seen the number fluctuating with occasional deaths, frequent new admissions, and discharges. A visit to the children’s wards on Level Three (cancer) and Level Nine (eye) on Thursday afternoons when they normally meet for the sessions introduces one to a beehive of activity far from what is expected in a hospital “screaming, begging for help and lamentations. The very sick and the not-so-sick, the young and the not-very-young, the willing and the unwilling, all crawl on the floor, squat or bend over tables on their paintings exhibiting enormous imagination and creativity. And when the one-hour session is over, there is always something to crow about” a fine piece of art from the children.
Throughout this session, the children “some of who are fighting fatal ailments, permanent physical disabilities, mental retardation and many other forms of complications” participate with utmost concentration and determination. At this time one would be tempted to think that some of these children are malingering to stay in hospital instead of going to school. But nurses and other hospital staff affirm, “The elated spirits is as a result of the presence of the painters. Come any other day or time and you will run away as the children will look as if they are on the verge of death.”
The children’s artworks are usually taken for exhibitions. Some are taken to RaMoMA. The storage is one of the RaMoMA’s sponsorship for the project, which include materials and equipment, organisation of the fares and exhibitions, transport for the artists and provide a “meeting point for brainstorming and job opportunities for the artists.” Some of the paintings of these sick children, says RaMoMA workshops coordinator James Mbuthia, will be exhibited in Australia later this year during the 2004 Commonwealth Games presided over by the Queen of England. In creating friendly atmosphere for the ‘students’, Ali Salim Mburu, one of the artists, brings along his guitar or keyboard and plays the entertainer throughout the lessons. In the midst of all this, not everyone appreciates the effort of the artists and the children.
In fact, this project is threatened and Mbuthia says it “will continue as far as we have funds. The current funds can last up to a year.” Saying they have introduced music in the Healing through Art programme, Mbuthia, a painter who has worked with disadvantaged migrant children in art training in Marseilles, France, says, “There is something scientific about colours in healing.” Martin Kamuyu, head of the Healing through Art programme, says, “At times it is only those people whose siblings are part of the team that we work with that recognise our work.” He however is also quick to quip that theirs is not to attract the attention of the people or seek any form of favour. “We love the children and we feel it is our duty to be with them and encourage them as they undergo difficulties in life.” Parents who flock the ‘classroom’ during this lunch hour session are an attestation of how the affected persons appreciate the work being done by “these good people in the lives of our loved ones.”
With this, one is tempted to question where other artists–story tellers, dancers, puppeteers, poets–are in this society that needs them but doesn’t find them at times such as these. As one leaves the ‘Healing through Art gallery’ with the children carrying their ‘Art Of The Day’, one is left wondering how good and pain-free the world would be if everyone would contribute a thing or two to the community. In fact, so successful is the healing through art project that an American student, Jessica Gerschultz, had to study it for her Master of Arts degree at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, United States of America. A copy of her thesis is kept at RaMoMA.