One of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, Nani Croze, has lived a life few could dare to
The journey to the Kitengela Glass estate begins like any other from Nairobi. Traffic is often heavy and there is frustration on the roads. But as you pass through the last of it, a different world unfurls. The road is murram (gravelly) and a new settlement is unfolding around it, overlooked by a new railroad track for the high-speed train to Mombasa, recent signs of development consuming the old Maasai plains.
But no less than a mile away, cushioned by the narrow gorges of the Nairobi National Park, is the entry into a wonderland where the life and work of German-born artist Nani Croze has concentrated for over the last 40 years. It is an eccentric paradise with a lush covering of indigenous trees and shrubs, canopies over stunning and colorfully outrageous architecture that announce the artist in her territory.
However, her life in Kenya was a gift of fate. Croze first came to East Africa with her first husband, the animal behaviourist, Harvey Croze, and their children at the end of the 1960s.
“I came to Africa in 1968 to study elephants in the Serengeti and four years later, the study was finished and we decided to go back across the continent back to Europe. I filled a VW van with my three kids, safely in the back, and we got as far as the Kenyan border. The car broke down and we stayed…and that was that,” she tells me in the aviary area outside her house as birdsong echoes around generous foliage.
Mother Nani, or ‘Mama’ to the community of artisans and their families that also call Kitengela Glass home, is a matriarch in this setting. Her hair is pinned up in a loose bun revealing tanned cheeks and piercing blue eyes.
A formidable painter and muralist, Croze is an artist of many mediums. However, a little-known fact is her life in science. As a young woman, she convinced the Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding father of the science of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, to work under him. Her earlier works depict this scientific knowledge in lively wildlife motifs.
Nonetheless, she is perhaps most known, these days, for her work with glass. Her estate is testament to this; colored glass panels of all shapes and sizes line the structures at the entry of her world. The winding walkway is flanked by sculptures accented with thick glass. The outdoor seating is dalle-de-verre.
The workshop and furnace are open for passersby to see. Its products, ever-present at every corner of the estate, also decorate the balustrades of the estate’s gallery, roof to her personal studio, intentionally constructed around a formidable mogumo (African fig) tree, a souvenir from the early days. She found it growing on the barren plains of what would become estate when she arrived in 1979, a genus local legend claims can never die.
By this then, a single mother of three, Croze stumbled in to the glass arts out of economic necessity. She had purchased the land from the Maasai community of the area and was, at the time, a working muralist.
“My architect [told me] ‘you can’t pay school fees with murals, you better start something new, what about stained glass?’” she recalls.
An influx of Christian missions meant that stained glass windows were crucial for finishing new churches and, as an art, they were more profitable. This has since expanded to a wide-range of recycled glass products from blown glass to beads, mosaics, murals, sculpture and, of course, dalle de verre. However, the stained glass studio, the first on the estate, still remains, busy and peopled, tucked away in a quiet corner of the gallery building.
Croze, perhaps one of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, is often credited for introducing this new craft to the region. She herself is self-taught and along with her son, Anslem, trained by glass-blowers in the South of France and Holland, built the first furnace in East Africa. He eventually took over the glass-blowing side of the business and now runs his own studio next door along with an eponymous retail brand in Nairobi selling decorative glass vessels, furniture and lighting.
In her own right, Nani is responsible for training the first Kenyan glass artisans, initially in stained glass and then in glass-blowing and mosaics.
“We started together, my first [assistant] was a man called Omondi. We started on stained glass-making and how it works and it’s quite a process but once you’re in it, like all my guys here… you get quite good at it. It’s a traditional and weary process but once you have [the finished window] you have something beautiful that can never be undone,” she says.
Of the things that cannot be undone is Croze’s legacy not only within the community of the estate and the industry she has created around it but in the lives of many in East Africa.
Kitengela Glass is home to more than 50 artisans and their families, many of whom have gone on to build independent careers in and outside of glass art. An example is Edith Nyambura, formerly the resident mosaic artist, who began her career at Kitengela and eventually wrote a book about her work in 2010.
There is also the young Patrick Kibe, colloquially known as ‘Mr. Dudu’ (Mr. Insect in Kiswahili), who arrived as a student at the estate almost a decade ago and is now carving his own niche, creating figures and sculptures of indigenous flora and fauna from recycled materials.
Then there is the school Croze founded, not far from the estate, often billed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Her motivation was to introduce to the country the creative education she had received as a young girl in Germany, which she regretted that her own children did not have attending local schools.
“We have such terrible schools in Kenya that are so bad for children! A child should grow up free, they should have music, art, new movement and environment,” she laments.
The Rudolf Steiner School started with a class of 10 in Nairobi’s leafy Karen suburb, popularly known as the setting of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s pre-colonial odyssey.
“It took its time. We had a very good worldwide sponsorship, especially from Germany. We’ve had our ups and downs but now we have two in Karen and the other one in Kitale [in western Kenya].”
In addition to her contributions in education, she is also a key campaigner for young artists across Kenya. She is the founder of the annual Kenya Arts Diary, a weekly calendar and catalog of up-and-coming contemporary artists in the country.
The ninth edition was released in November with an exuberant exhibition at the Nairobi Museum and since its founding has been produced by a group of passionate volunteers. Every year, she picks up two artists featured in the diary and invites them to a residency at the estate. The inspiration for the project, she says, was her father, the acclaimed German woodcut artist HAP Grieshaber, who also took a similar interest in his students.
“He would always help his students. Art is very expensive most people can’t buy it so you either make it yourself or you make sure it happens. The diary is just a venue to make sure people buy it and see it every week,” she notes.
Although the next issue of the arts diary will be her last, Croze remains ever passionate about her adopted home and community and hopes to continue giving back to it while she is still alive.
“I was the first mzungu [Caucasian] in Maasailand…we had a really good relationship and we still have with the Maasai community but my Ma is still not very good, I must say. I feel very much a part of the community,” she says.
Croze is a focal point at the Nairobi National Museum, from the dalle-de-verre mural that welcomes museum-goers at the main exhibition hall, to her mosaic path that snakes through the museum gardens to the goliath metal and glass sculptures that mark the way through the complex. She remains one of the few living artists in Kenya to have such a permanent and public showing.
Even away from the whimsical glass oasis that she has built, echoes of her are littered across Nairobi. Her commissioned murals on major commercial buildings such as the American Embassy in the city’s diplomatic district. She was the first to color the walls of the newly-established United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in 1972. Her art is also at the Times Tower in the heart of the old city, home to the tax authority. There are also pieces dotted across the region, a recent commission at a call center in Eldoret, in western Kenya, and the windows at the Serena Hotel in Kigali.
“I just want to make sure that it all keeps going. There are always problems here and there, all the time, but I want to keep it going,” she says.
Croze, true to her word, is still going with plans for a vocational school to train a larger population of recycled glass artisans in the nearby township of Tuala. Plans are also underway for a devotional school to replace her personal chapel that was lost in a land dispute and, of course, more commissions while she is still able to work on them. On the future of the world around her, a life’s work, she is surprisingly indifferent. “I leave it to the Gods,” she ruminate