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
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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