She is a possessive mother hen with her art that she looks at like newly hatched chicks that must be protected from the hungry hawk. That is Irene Wanjiru, arguably Kenya’s most celebrated female sculptor, OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Despite the time constraints of attending to her motherly and wifely duties, Wanjiru-also a tapestry maker of no mean repute–will never let any one touch her wood, stone or working implements like files, rasps, chisels, mallets, and ngong’o (pick axes). “I prefer to do the work myself to guard against it being spoilt,” she says. A self-taught artist who ventured in art on her own at home, Wanjiru says friends and relatives who identified her talent and were impressed by her gunny bag wall hangings advised her to seek guidance from Kuona Art Studio at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.
Wanjiru acted on their advice by attending a wood-sculpting workshop at Kuona in September 1996. When the piece she had created was bought, Wanjiru took this as confirmation of her calling to the art of chisel and mallet. She plunged headlong into sculpting and her confidence was further boosted when she was selected to participate in an international artists workshop the following year.
The experience revolutionised her work and it was thus with little surprise when CARE
Wanjiru puts finishing touches to Maisha ni Hivyo
International commissioned her in 1998 to do a piece of sculpture to commemorate the relief agency’s 50th anniversary. Her creation, Maisha ni hivyo (Kiswahili for “That is life”), is at the Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters of CARE. Wanjiru says, “I carve because I love creativity. My only regret is that I do not do as much of it as I would like due to time limitation. I would have loved to work non-stop every day.”
She says she has done only one painting in her life. As we interview her at a workshop-cum exhibition in her Loresho home in Nairobi, Wanjiru takes us round her generous compound, introducing us to her work.
In one corner is ‘Twin Destiny’, a wooden sculpture with two faces looking in the opposite direction with a bowl resting on their common head. “This sculpture shows that ‘no burden is too heavy for any one when it is shared’,” she explains. She says of ‘Garden of Dreams’, a piece that gives the impression that Wanjiru is obsessed with faces: “If I see a piece of wood, I see faces calling me, asking me to bring them out. I like to use an axe to see what life I can bring to the parts of the wood that are not talking to me.” Garden of dreams teaches that one should never lose one’s focus in life.
The cave where woman was born celebrates femininity
‘The cave’ where woman was born, one of Wanjiru’s towering sculptures celebrating femininity ‘Out of the Gourd’ is a stone sculpture with the face of a beast and a human being drinking from a gourd of which Wanjiru says, “I like carving faces-whether they be of beasts or humans. I just begin carving the material and soon a face appears. ” Wanjiru has no apology for sculpting which is commonly perceived in Kenya.