The Kenyan scholar who carved his way to fame in Uganda

What you need to know:

  • Prof Gregory Maloba went to Makerere for studies but ended up creating the country’s Independence Monument and decorating its currency notes
  • He has created some of Nairobi’s iconic sculptures but has never been acknowledged by the government

Kenya has the well-honed habit of shunning its cultural workers. Sometimes, other countries appropriate those workers, make them icons and celebrate them.

A good case in point is Professor Gregory Paul Maloba. A Ugandan publication, Sunrise, recently referred to him as “one of Uganda’s first professional sculptors.” In Kefa Otiso’s Culture And Customs of Uganda, Maloba is counted amongst “other contemporary Ugandan sculptors.”

So important is Maloba to Uganda(ns) that his work was recently inscribed on the currency notes that Uganda released in May 2010.

This week, his wife, Beatrice, gave a good spirited laugh over the question of Maloba’s citizenship: “He was very much a Kenyan, born in Mumias in 1922… educated at Mumias Primary and St Mary’s School, Yala”. Maloba is buried on his farm in Likuyani, Kakamega County.

In 1992, I travelled to Kampala with my family. As we strolled in the park around the hotel, we noticed a towering majestic art-piece in the distance. We were surprised to learn from the plaque that it was created by a man we knew as a quiet, soft spoken artist-turned-farmer living in Likuyani. He had never once mentioned his contribution to East Africa’s independence movement.

When he sculpted that elegant monument located along Speke Road, Kampala, in the park beside the Sheraton Hotel and just opposite Standard Chartered Bank, Maloba was teaching at Makerere University. The tall magnificent sculpture is of a woman who is seemingly unwrapping a child while at the same time holding the child aloft. The child raises his arms high up pointing to the sky.

One can choose to read traces of patronising neocolonialism in this portrayal — the colonial British government clinging on to a fragile young nation. Or one can choose, instead, to focus on the sculpture not for its ambiguity about the new nation, but as a powerful statement of release from bondage and aiming for grand goals.

When we got back to Eldoret and his lawyer mentioned that sculpture in Kampala to him, Maloba swelled with unmistakable pride. He had never returned to Uganda from the time he left.

Conditions had never been right. Between 1971 and 1986, Uganda was in a constant state of political flux — one military coup after another. Safety could not be guaranteed. By the 1990s, the vagaries of age made the journey across the border too cumbersome to contemplate.

So when he heard first-hand evidence from his lawyer that his independence statue still stood erect on the grounds where Uganda’s first Prime Minister, Apollo Milton Obote, first unveiled it on October 5, 1962, Maloba was visibly surprised.

Through war, rain and turmoil, his work was still a reminder of the hopes Uganda had once had; hopes that it struggles to fulfil.

Then the old professor made a shy request: if his lawyer ever returned to Kampala, would he please take a picture of the monument and bring it back to him? Maloba died at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Eldoret in May 2004.

If he had lived to see his recently refurbished work emblazoned on Uganda’s new currency notes he would have been overjoyed by that great honour and immortality.

Maloba once said: “A good piece of sculpture is an expression of Life”.

At the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi stands a concrete water fountain spewing water from a pot held by two kneeling women. Though there are plaques naming the weeping fig trees and other plants around it, there is no sign acknowledging the artist who built that towering fountain.

He is not mentioned in the literature on the hotel’s history and the workers do not know who built the monument that they walk past every day!

Maloba’s other commissioned work includes the concrete freezes on the stone wall of the Central Bank in Nairobi. From the perimeter fence round the bank, there is nothing to alert you to the identity of the man who created that genius art locked in stone. But the Maloba family still has the treasured album documenting the process of creating those freezes.

But more than art-pieces, Maloba’s legacy is also in the three generations of artists that he trained. They include the evocative polychrome painter Geraldine Robarts, the maestro of soap-stone sculpting Elkana Ong’esa and Gakunju Kaigwa, the ultra-versatile sculptor who works in resin, wood, stone and steel.

Maloba returned to Kenya in 1965 to join the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Development at the University of Nairobi. He then went on to establish the Department of Art and Design at what was then, Kenyatta University College. KU remains the only public university in Kenya that offers degrees in Fine Art.

The department Maloba started has grown tenfold. Today, he would be proud of its landscaped gardens adorned with sculptures of various forms, some of which carry echoes of his style. But having been extremely soft-spoken, he would probably find the idea of teaching a drawing class of 100 undergraduates rather daunting.

Kaigwa was in the last sculpture class that Maloba taught before he retired from KU. He remembers the professor as “a very intense teacher, he rarely smiled, took his teaching very seriously and was very keen to pass on his skills to us but was also very humble compared to some of his peers”.

Maloba never recounted his exploits and successes to his students, and he never forced his ideas on his students.

Though naturally gifted, a career in fine art did not come easy to Maloba. In 1963, he told Transition magazine that when he first left home at 14 to go to boarding school, his father, a carpenter, told him to forget all about mud if he wanted to get anywhere; he was to go and concentrate on his studies not spend all his time moulding the kind of mud figurines he was so fond of creating as a young child.

In 1940, the governor, Sir Henry Moore, visited St Mary’s School Yala and the principal displayed Maloba’s art. The governor’s wife, a graduate of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, spotted the young artist’s skill and offered Maloba a scholarship to St Mary’s Kisubi in Uganda so that he could train under Margaret Trowell at Makerere. Later, he graduated from Manchester University and the Royal College of Art in London.

Weak eye-sight challenged Maloba’s pursuit of art. But at Makerere, keen peers ensured that he got early treatment.

In 1976, he underwent eye surgery in Nairobi, and later that year, he had a transplant operation in Holland. He always returned to his art even though many people thought that a life-time of firing clay in kilns and welding with inadequate protection affected his already weak eyes.

While in Uganda, Maloba’s art — such as Death, The Beggar, The Hunter — was often borne of deep philosophical musings about life and death. But his subject-matter grew over the years.

Becoming a parent offers a new range of emotions for the artist to draw upon as raw material for his craft. And when a teacher becomes a parent, s/he finds a new set of willing students who sometimes proceed from sheer innate talent.

Maloba’s son, Vincent, has endearing memories of his father’s craft as an artist and a teacher. “He encouraged all of us to have a speculative interest in art... even if we were not going to go into art as a profession.”

Naturally, the children had to make some sacrifices whenever their father needed some quiet working time in his studio. Maloba worked in silence, separating the making of art from the soothing inspiration of listening to classical music, especially Mozart and Beethoven.

As children, Elizabeth, Vincent and his twin brother, Victor, had plenty of opportunities to experiment with art. Their father often brought home clay for his modelling and the children “borrowed” it to mould toy cars and animals.

“We could all sculpt and fire a model. We were really good at making them, well, by the standards of children, especially animals; many people always told us that we should study art seriously”.

Victor, while he lived, was the only one who took up that challenge for both his “O” levels and his “A levels at St Mary’s School in Nairobi. Even though he dropped the study of art thereafter, Victor was still good enough to undertake some structural drawings for the extension of his bedroom at the family home in Likuyani.

Wherever he lived, Maloba’s homes were always distinguished by his beautiful landscaping. In Nairobi, he spent many hours with fellow artistes, students and peers like Elimo Njau sometimes going off to quiet forest areas to sketch as others sculpted and moulded.

Vincent recalls that his “father was a professor when it was a really prestigious and rare thing in Kenya and we felt the immense respect that he always got from people”.

As children, they gradually grew to learn of his fame seeing the awards that he received after presenting a wedding gift to Princess Margaret of England in 1960. Another gift in recognition of his work came from the Asian community in Uganda.

The Kenya government never gave Maloba any State award.

Vincent underlines that Maloba’s art is still very much a part of his family. “He bought lots of books that are still with us; other reminders are ceramics, pottery and busts that he sculpted, which are still displayed in the dining room except for one, which my mother put in her bedroom.”

Maloba always said that in a world where politics and economics make art look irrelevant, the older artists must help the younger artists by example and by creating public awareness through travelling exhibitions.

“Artists will have to be aggressive and then good artists. Those that really work will make themselves felt, even if they are only a handful”.

It is not too late to reward the contribution of Prof Maloba to the formative years of an independent East Africa. We must strengthen our curriculum on art history and we can name and endow a Professor Emeritus Chair for Maloba at one of our universities.

There is still time to give his widow, Beatrice, her husband’s posthumous Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS) award. And we ought to name Prof Maloba in a list of 50 Outstanding Kenyans in Kenya’s First Fifty Years.

And hopefully, when our leaders are done bickering, they will see the value of preserving and marketing sites of memory such as Professor Gregory Paul Maloba’s art and his grave.

His wife, Beatrice, remarked: “It would be great to see the government do something to put these books to good use; they just gather dust here”.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst. [email protected]