Naomi Wanjiku spent the most formative years of her early life surrounded by artists who left a lasting impression on her.
“I have been doing art all my life,” said the Texas-based Kenyan who was back in Nairobi last week with a group of American students keen to spend time in the rural areas where Wanjiku grew up.
Taking them to Gacharage village in Murang’a County, the former University of Nairobi Textile Design lecturer was well aware that her visitors wouldn’t actually see the rich cultural life that she grew up in.
“Things have changed tremendously since I saw my grandmother and her friends make her home out of mud and wattle, roofed with grass that the women harvested and thatched themselves,” said Wanjiku who loved the way the women knew exactly where to dig for soils of specific colours—different shades of brown and ochre and white.
“My grandmother used to take pride in putting on that final coat of white mud, but then, when she wasn’t looking, I’d take charcoal bits from her fire and draw decorations that i thought were beautiful but she definitely did not!” she said.
Wanjiku hadn’t yet gone to primary school, but she was already learning about arts and crafts. It was from her grandmother and her female friends that she learned to especially love working with textiles.
“They were all basket weavers, who wove – not with sisal (that came later), but with local grasses and bark from the ‘migiyo’ shrub that they used to strip and chew till the bark was tender.”
Wanjiku watched these women create their own twine by twisting together two strands of ‘migiyo’ yarn, after which they would weave it into different sizes of baskets (along with slightly stronger ‘mukwa’ straps).
Wanjiku’s love of weaving led her to pick up other hands-on techniques, including crocheting, stitching and knitting. “I used to win awards at the Nakuru Craft Show while I was still in middle school,” she said noting her family shifted to Nakuru before she was 10.
Traditionally, all those craft techniques tend to be associated with women’s work. But Wanjiku uses them today to create amazing hand-woven art. Combining all four techniques using metals and fine wires as well as wool and sisal, Wanjiku creates monumental murals, sculptures and wall hangings that transcend gender stereotypes.
Wanjiku’s been fortunate to attend schools that nurtured her love of art and crafts. At St Bridget’s Girls Boarding, she developed her skills in sewing with the Catholic nuns. Then at Kenya High she was able to major in clothing and textiles for her ‘A’ levels.
Majoring in Textiles at the University of Nairobi led to her lecturing in the same field and subsequently getting the chance to do a masters degree at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
Currently based in San Antonio where her Kenyan spouse, Peter Gakunga, has an orthodontic practice and where she taught for several years at the city’s School of Art, Wanjiku’s been weaving metals and fine wires into murals and sculptures full time for the last seven years.
At the same time, she continues to combine her weaving with those other techniques of knitting, sewing and crocheting.
“I realised I needed to devote myself to my art full time as i knew there was so much i wanted to do,” she said.
Explaining that like the ‘mamas’ in the village, she also makes her own materials, Wanjiku said she buys big rolls of sheet metal and then soaks them in water for several weeks.
‘After that, there’s the thrill of unrolling the metal and seeing what sorts of designs to water has made on the metal. I try to replicate the rust colours that i used to see once the women switched from roofing with thatched grass to using mabati [corrugated iron sheets].”
After that she cuts the sheets into narrow strips with which she weaves her sculptures and murals, some as large as six feet by seven and a half feet.
Wanjiku hopes to come back to Kenya next year and open a studio at Kuona Trust.
In the interim, her first solo exhibition in London opens at the prestigious October Gallery next Tuesday, September 11th and runs for the whole month. In the recent past, she’s exhibited her metallic tapestries everywhere from Brazil, Japan and Poland to cities all around the United States.