Elimo Njau: My art, my world

Elimo Njau and his works.

The scene was as informal as would be expect of any birthday bash, save for the pedigree of the invited – Lawyer Pheroze Norwojee, afro-fusion artiste Eric Wainaina, author David Maillu and artist Justus Kyalo.

Elimo Njau and his works.Photo by John Koigi

Also in the company of the invitees – all of them free spirits drinking porridge from calabashes – were academicians to beat the Sunday evening cold and toast to Elimo Njau's 74th birthday. 

The place? Paa ya Paa Arts Centre, specifically in a section of the centre that resembles a tabernacle by virtue of the paintings and setting. 

A huge mural depicting the Last Supper overlooks a magnificent glass-topped table that is ringed with 13 wooden stools.

"This is a place of divinity and inspiration," says Njau, a devout Lutheran. "I sketched it in six months but painted it in only a month. Gestation is nine months but delivery is only a matter of hours."

The 13 stools, I gather, represent each of Jesus' 12 disciples, the extra one "representing evil that exists in every grouping, which has to be overcome and neutralised through love," as Elimo puts it. 

Located off Ridgeways Road, Kiambu, the centre is home to an impressive array of paintings, carvings, murals and sculptures. Some by Njau and others are by artistes who routinely gather there for residency. 

Njau is reputed to be the father of the banana fibre technique that he developed during his years at Makerere University, Uganda in the 1950s. He is also a poet, painter, carver and sculptor. 

While some of the artworks at Paa ya Paa have been freshly done, others are remnants of what was left after a mysterious fire in 1997. 

Over the past eight years, Njau, with help from his American-born wife, Philda, has slowly restored the centre from its ashes and expanded it to accommodate a freedom fighters’ creative and meditative gardens; love garden and an artist's residence.

Every art piece at Paa ya Paa has a timeless story behind it. The most remarkable are two cement sculptures. One is a six-foot tall freedom fighter who stands behind the compound brandishing a home-made gun and a machete in a victorious wave. He was meant to be erected outside the Attorney General's Chambers, Harambee Avenue, Nairobi, as a tribute to Kenya’s freedom fighters.

"I had been commissioned by George Mund, the government architect in 1963 to do the sculpture. I got Samuel Wanjawa, a Nyeri sculptor to do it since he had fought in the Mau Mau war and had a better picture of the topic. But when Charles Njonjo, (then the Attorney General) came around to view it, that was the sudden end to the project." Reason? Elimo can only guess. "I think he deemed it crude due to the spiky hair. And the fact that he was wearing slippers only accentuated it," says Njau

The other is an equally imposing sculpture of a young man and woman holding a pot aloft. Etched on the pot are faces of an elderly man and woman. Known as ‘Saving youth for a dignified old age’, it was meant to be erected outside the National Social Security Fund Building in Milimani, Nairobi. 

"The sculpture extols the need to save for old age, thus the pot with faces of an old man and woman," explains Njau. This too came a cropper, thanks to the ‘short sightedness’ of the same government architect.

One of the oldest artworks in the centre is a 1954 painting of a muscular young man at work, which underlines his passion for painting the human body. "Most artists have become visually lazy. They don't want to draw from nature and understand form. They just want to do abstract. Abstract art, when good, is like poetry, condensed poetry," he reasons.

Another notable work is a 1962 clay sculpture that depicts the return of the biblical prodigal son. Others are Rosemary Karuga's sculpture of the Three Wise Men. It is believed to be about 70 years old.

Two clay models hint at Njau's days as a lecturer at Makerere University. One is of his co-lecturer Arthur French and another of his best friend and classmate John Kisaka.

Paa ya Paa centre also features Samuel Wanjawa’s beauty contest that pits a Maasai, white European, Arab and an Indian against one another– the judges being a chimpanzee and an African man.

Murals in a Kiharu Cathedral

But he reveals that he has a soft spot for artworks that tell the story of Kenya's liberation struggle and the Bible in a traditional African manner. You will find his murals at St James Anglican Cathedral in Kiharu, Murang'a, which he drew in the 1960s, but don't bear his signatures for he feared the colonial government would sabotage them. 

As a Tanzanian by birth, Njau has an inclination for the Ujamaa system, initiated by late president Julius Nyerere. "We need a resurrection of Nyerere. He pushed democracy across the boundaries of love and hatred." 

Njau has helped hew the direction of art in East Africa since 1961 when he started the Kibo Arts Centre in Tanzania. He first came to Kenya in 1979 while teaching at Makerere was asked by the director of Sorsbie Gallery to manage it. 

After some time, he pitched tent at Sadler House (now Consolidated Bank House, Koinange Street) then a favourite haunt for the likes of novelists Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Okot P'Bitek and poet Jonathan Kariara.

Paa ya Paa sprang into existence in 1961 and is Kiswahili for "the antelope rises high in the air".

"Then, the most popular form of art was carving the antelope. It was James Kangwana, a poet (and former director at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) who said that time had come for artistes to rise to higher realms of aesthetics. These values were ingrained in an antelope, here representing all forms of art – music, painting and poetry among others. Paa ya Paa thus means the artist has risen."

Paa ya Paa has hosted several notable personalities among them former US president Jimmy Carter in 1998 and actor Sydney Poitier in 1970.

Every October, the Centre is the venue of the Daniel Pearl Music Days, a week-long Bach music ceremony held in honour of murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl. Pearl, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists during a working tour to Pakistan in 2002.

"His parents decided to be holding the event globally in his honour, says Njau. "Pearl was a violin player and it was a cultural attach at the American Embassy in Nairobi who introduced his parents to this centre. We were the first ones in Africa to be asked to host this event." 

"In the past, Njau has been photographed sporting a pronounced Coptic Cross. He explains that it was a gift from a Bishop Samuel of Ethiopia, which he received in the 1960s, after organising an exhibition of paintings during an All African Conference of Churches convention in Lusaka, Zambia.

"He put it around my neck and said, 'wear it always and it will protect you'". Has he made money by the bagful? According to Njau, locally art does not pay (in cash) but it does in kind and thus he is "one of the richest men in Africa."

Who does he admire most in the arts world? "What I'm doing now is to learn to respect my art and myself so that I can start respecting others. We don't have self respect as Africans."

He has a lot of respect for his wife though, whom he says, "ensures the continuity of life, purpose and human form."

The couple first met in 1970

Born in America, Njau equates Philda to the biblical Joseph who was sold to slavery in Egypt by his brothers. Philda is a black American by birth, whose forefathers were sold off to America from Africa as slaves. The couple first met in 1970 when Philda visited Paa ya Paa with Operation Crossroad Africa, a religious organisation. 

Elimo parted ways with his first wife author Rebecca Njau in 1983 due to what he terms as irreconcilable differences. It was one of the most sensational sideshows in Kenya's art scene. 

"A man without a wife is like a bucket without a bottom," so he thinks. Elimo has five children; Morile, who works for Smithkline Beecham, London, Hannah who works in Atlanta, USA, Elimani, a physiotherapist, Philipa who is studying biochemistry at the University of New York and Telly a computer technologist in New Jersey.

His parting shot? "Patience is bitter, but the fruit is sweet".