What you need to know:
- His works are inspired primarily by his mother and grandmother, who were both potters.
- Growing up, he used to help his mother prepare her clay.
- At the same time, he learned the material’s infinite possibilities, not just in shaping pots, but also in modeling stories about individuals whose lives he encountered every day as a social worker in Eastlands for many years.
Aged 99, pioneering Kenyan artist Edward Njenga is a busy man. He’s been slowed down just a tiny bit by a leg problem that ultimately led to partial amputation. But otherwise, Njenga is easily as robust, sharp, and involved with the art that has occupied his life for many decades as a man half his age.
Granted, he has several artisans who help him carry out the more arduous aspects of his work, but his biggest helpers are his grandson, Edward Junior, who assists with Njenga’s online communications, and his dedicated wife of 60 years, Hannah. Njenga believes that healthy living, nutritious foods, and Mungu are key factors in his longevity.
It is Hannah who has seen him through his years in detention for being deemed a Mau Mau fighter, and Hannah who endured years of loneliness when Njenga was studying overseas, both in UK and in Germany. She has stood by him when they had little, up until now that they have retired comfortably in their Gigiri mansion where Njenga has his gallery and workshop studio.
His works are inspired primarily by his mother and grandmother, who were both potters. Growing up, he used to help his mother prepare her clay. At the same time, he learned the material’s infinite possibilities, not just in shaping pots, but also in modeling stories about individuals whose lives he encountered every day as a social worker in Eastlands for many years.
Those individuals’ struggles, hardships, and endurance are the main subjects of his carefully crafted sculptures. Everyone, from the mkokoteni handcart driver to the street boys digging into dustbins for food to the sick mothers, babies and beggars, are all portrayed in his three-dimensional sculptures.
What may be even more of a wonder is that the declined to sell majority of his clay figurines for decades despite pressure from collectors.
“I wanted to hold onto my sculptures so they would remain in the country and so that I could retain ownership of them,” Njenga told Nation Lifestyle recently.
He plans to have an exhibition of his art later this year at the Nairobi National Museum.
“I had donated several of my sculptures to the museum with the understanding that I could have an exhibition there whenever I wanted,” he says.
Despite being best known as a clay master whose biographer, Lynnette Kariuki, titled his book ‘Telling it in Clay’, Ngenga’s upcoming exhibition is bound to cause a shift in public perception of the man and his art.
He plans to present few, if any, clay pieces. Instead, his most formidable works will be made of wood, and especially from giant tree roots.
Njenga doesn’t disclose when his graceful root sculptures were made, but he admits the roots were picked up several years back when many giant trees had to be felled to make room for road constructions.
“I used to find them lying on the side of the road, and their shapes would inspire me to create incredible things,” he says. In one instance, Njenga ‘saw’ a giant dragon. In another, a wistful mermaid and in another, a semi-abstract being.
These are in radical contrast to the ensemble piece of Mau Mau detainees that he agreed to sell to a British bidder who was keen to pay for the installation, including a bullish British colonial master and several African home guards.
These items got shipped out of Kenya, contrary to Njenga’s original plan to keep his best works in the country. But as artists must also put food on the table, Njenga gracefully released his Mau Mau collection, knowing it will be well cared for by the new owner.
In the meantime, Njenga plans to celebrate his centennial birthday during his forthcoming show.