Ailing star artist Brush Wanyu counts on his paintings to foot bills

Brush Wanyu with his unfinished Baby Jesus painting on the left.

Brush Wanyu with his unfinished Baby Jesus painting on the left.

Photo credit: Mbugua Ngunjiri | Nation Media Group

This is the season of good tidings, but it is one that invokes unpleasant memories in Brush Wanyu.

In 2021, at around this time, he was in high spirits, hard at work in his studio, putting final touches to a piece that would reflect the Christmas mood — a painting that depicted baby Jesus and his parents fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt, to escape from Herod’s persecution — when the worst happened.

His home studio is on the first floor of his house in Ngecha village, in Limuru. Brush remembers getting off his three-legged stool to look for something at the entrance of the studio when one of his legs got entangled in a piece of rope.

He was in the process of disentangling himself when he awkwardly fell at the edge of the wooden stairs. By then his body was off balance. He came tumbling down to the bottom of the stairs on the ground floor. “I was in terrible pain,” says the 74-year-old Wanyu.

“I hurt my back and the back of my head, which was bleeding.” Luckily for him, there was a friend around the house, who administered First Aid and organised for him to be taken to the nearby Tigoni Hospital. The effects of that fall on his body are still being felt today. He walks with a pronounced stoop and his right hand, the one he uses to paint, is affected by spasms.

At times the right hand shakes so badly that he has to place the left hand on it to stop. This writer had to strike a matchstick to light up a cigarette in his mouth for him to smoke. Upstairs, his studio lies abandoned; so too is the baby Jesus painting he was working on. There is a thick layer of dust on the floor and the few paintings on the wall are also covered in a thin film of dust. The smell of acrylic paint has been replaced by that of dust; it is a sorry sight to behold.

Even before the 2021 accident, Wanyu was still not enjoying the best of health, owing to ravages of old age, but he would at least sit down on his stool and paint away in the studio.

Through the intervention of a friend, Wanyu recently got back a stash of his paintings that had been lying in an art gallery, in the US, for about 20 years. He had given some of the paintings to a local art agency that specialises in auctions, but none got a buyer. The other half is gathering dust in his studio. 

Hopeful for a buyer

Today, Wanyu sits alone in his home, hoping that one of his many paintings, stacked at the Banana Hill Art Gallery, about 20 kilometres away from Ngecha, will get a buyer so that he can pay some of his bills that keep accumulating. His water supply has been cut, and he has accumulated electricity bills.

This is a far cry for the man whose paintings would fetch upwards of Sh1 million per piece. On his living room wall, there is a framed picture of him with the late Charles Njonjo, admiring his painting at Gallery Watatu before it closed down.

That painting was bought by a Japanese collector for Sh2.5 million. Had he been able to finish the baby Jesus painting and it got a buyer, he says that he would put a price tag of Ksh400,000 on it. Things started going downhill for Wanyu when Ruth Schaffner, the founder of Gallery Watatu, died in 1996. Matters got worse when the gallery, founded in 1968, closed its doors in 2005.

In December 2009, the late President Mwai Kibaki bestowed upon him a Head of State Commendation for his immense contribution in the area of visual arts. “We had an excellent working relationship with Ruth; we would do our paintings and take them to her gallery,” recalls Wanyu with a tinge of nostalgia.

“Once the painting was done, she would take her commission and promptly give us our money.” Wanyu had bought a car which would ferry him around. “We had a good time, then,” he says with a weak smile. All that is gone now. Today he relies on friends and well-wishers to help him meet his basic needs. “I am just waiting upon the Lord,” says.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.