Documenting Sane Wadu's Kenyan Allegories

The newly opened Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute presents the first-ever survey of the autodidact’s long painting career

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 09 MAR 22

For its inaugural exhibition, the newly opened Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute presents a three-decade survey by autodidact Kenyan artist Sane Wadu. Ranging from his early watercolours and paintings on plastic sheets of the mid-1980s to larger canvases produced since the turn of the millennium, ‘I Hope So’ also includes a small archive of newspaper articles and private photographs documenting Wadu’s major career milestones. These include the co-founding, in 1995, of the Ngecha Artists Association – a 40-member collective that built and sustained a thriving art community providing support, training and opportunities to generations of artists in the eponymous village just outside Nairobi.

Sane Wadu, 'Mother Dragon', 1988, watercolour on paper
Sane Wadu, Mother Dragon, 1988, watercolour on paper. Courtesy: © the artist and Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute; photograph: James Muriuki

The show opens with Bless This Our Daily Bread (1984), a painting of a male figure sporting a long braided beard and a flowing white robe. Eyes shut and palms open in prayer, revealing his red-painted fingernails, the figure stands over five loaves of bread and two fish, flanked by a huge open eye and an enormous red flower. This appropriation of biblical narratives recurs explicitly in Wadu’s later work. Black Moses (1993), for instance, sees a large Black figure – a godhead who resembles former Kenyan strongman president Daniel arap Moi – surrounded by people in prostration. The work reflects on how Kenyan leadership uses Christian ideology to promise a better future for the country, and subversively employs the allegory of Moses as a way of criticizing Moi’s brutal regime: instead of parting the waters, the demagogue is engulfed by a sea of believers.

The bearded figure reappears, lacking all Messianic adornments, in Picking Tea (1985). Here, instead, he is at work, surrounded by the lush green leaves of a tea plantation, alongside two others whose backs are turned towards us. Despite the differing complexions of the protagonists, both paintings are evidently self-referential, with archival photographs on display revealing Wadu’s own show-stopper sideburns akin to those of the figures in his paintings.

Sane Wadu, 'Black Moses', 1993, oil on canvas
Sane Wadu, Black Moses, 1993, oil on canvas. Courtesy: © the artist and Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute; photograph: James Muriuki

Born in 1954 in Nyathuna, Wadu worked as a legal clerk and as a teacher before taking up painting in 1983. Initially, his practice was deemed too challenging for Kenya’s conservative art audiences and he struggled to secure shows. However, Ruth Schaffner, of Nairobi’s Gallery Watatu, supported Wadu from the start. ‘This is how I found my role, trying to express myself. My struggle to survive pushed me until I got to the light,’ he told Polly Savage in a 2010 interview published in Making Art in Africa 1960–2010 (2014).  

To mark this transition, Wadu adopted the name ‘Sane’ to counter the prevailing trope that artists like him were insane. Consequently, interiority became a consistent theme of his early work. In Afraid of Being (What One Is) (1988), for instance, a crucifixion is vaguely rendered in bright yellows and deep reds. To the left, a woman’s palms are joined in supplication, while looming spectres appear to mirror – or, perhaps, mock – the agony of the crucified figure. 

Sane Wadu, Picking Tea, 1985
Left to right: Sane Wadu, Picking Tea, 1985, gouache on paper. Courtesy: © the artist and Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute; photograph: James Muriuki

The 1980s and ’90s were Wadu’s experimental decades, evidenced by the wide range of painting techniques in the 37 works from the period. The five works on show produced after 2000 evince a more cultivated sense of style. Nevertheless, it is two canvases, Night Shift (2000) and Life Conspiracy (2019), which best demonstrate Wadu’s characteristic use of abstraction and dense colour. Despite being produced almost two decades apart, these paintings exemplify the recall value of Wadu’s dazzling brushstrokes.

Given his notable contribution to the local art community, Wadu’s retrospective also serves as a stock-taking exercise for Kenya’s art scene. On the one hand, the ‘hope’ of the exhibition’s title can be read as emblematic of the self-taught painter’s tenacious optimism throughout a career that has been anything but smooth. On the other, it speaks to the evolution within the local art community that has enabled this long-overdue show to take place, paving the way for many others like it in the future. 

‘I Hope So: Sane Wadu’ is on view at Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute until 30 March.

Main image: Sane Wadu, 'I Hope So', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute; photograph: James Muriuki

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.