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Art is the John the Baptist of the heart, preparing its affections for Christ. Jacques Maritain

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Wadu, Sane - VM - Jonathan Evens

Sane Wadu: Bless This Our Daily Bread

Look and Listen

by Jonathan Evens

Sane Wadu abandoned his birth name, Walter Njuguna Mbugua, to mock those who told him he was insane to leave his regular work as a schoolteacher to become an artist. This self-taught Kenyan artist started painting professionally in 1984 after having worked as an educator and court clerk. He came to prominence in Nairobi in the mid-1980s when he began exhibiting paintings at Gallery Watatu, a premier professional art gallery in East Africa advancing contemporary African art. Wadu has been central to supporting a generation of Kenyan artists. He co-founded the Ngecha Artists Association with his contemporaries Eunice Wadu, Wanyu Brush and Chain Muhindi. This is a collective formed to build community and promote largely self-taught artists by organising exhibitions and workshops that has provided critical support and training to generations of Nairobi-based artists. The Ngecha Village artists collective began a movement that came to dominate ways of making and thinking in the Kenyan art scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As a self-taught artist practicing in the 1980s Wadu had to navigate the constraints and expectations of commercial gallerists, realising that formally trained artists often enjoyed greater success. While his commercial viability was questioned, his unwavering sense of self and persistence eventually led to the turning point in his career, when he met Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu. He gained prominence for complex, layered and dreamlike compositions.

Wadu views art as not simply being work but a vocation that compels exploration of events, experiences, settings, and possibilities. His narrative paintings (and also his writings) cast a critical light on society, culture, religion, and the governments of his time. Themes explored include politics, gender, social injustice, as well as biblical subjects. While he was primarily concerned with the animal world in his early work, he has latterly devoted himself to the human figure. His style is expressive. The early work was characterized by thin washes of gouache on paper but more recently he has used thick, impasto applications of paint and quick brush strokes. His egalitarian philosophy and respect for the subjectivity of the artist also underpins the ethos of the Ngecha community and movement.

The very first painting that Wadu made in gouache on paper was Bless This Our Daily Bread in 1984. This depicts Christ blessing bread and fish, probably at the feeding of the five thousand, against the backdrop of a huge eye and ear which frame the central Christ figure. Jesus said to his disciples that the reason he spoke to them in parables was that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ He quoted the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’ He then commended his disciples saying, ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear’ (Matthew 13:13-16).

Sane Wadu experienced a similar lack of understanding in relation to his art from his local community and from gallerists when starting out as an artist. This work and his change of name are a challenge to look closer in order to see the transformation of idea into image that occurs within his work and which is paralleled by Christ’s blessing and sharing of the bread. Wadu’s art and his work through the Ngecha movement have provided support and sustenance to generations of artists in Nairobi. By doing so, he has practised throughout his career what he depicted in his very first painting.

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Sane Wadu: Bless This Our Daily Bread, 1984, gouache on paper.

Sane Wadu was born in 1954 in Nyathuna, Kenya. He began painting professionally in the 1980s, having given up his career as a teacher, and became one of Gallery Watatu’s most successful and iconic artists. His work has been exhibited worldwide, most notably in the seminal exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (London, UK), Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa in 1995 and its accompanying book. Other publications include Angaza Africa by the African curator at the British Museum, Chris Spring, 2008 and Contemporary African Art by Sydney Kasfir, 2000. Wadu co-founded the Ngecha Artists’ Association in the 1990s with fellow artists Eunice Wadu, Wanyu Brush and Chain Muhandi. Working alongside his wife and fellow artist Eunice Wadu, he continues to support young artists through The Sane Wadu Trust where they hold weekly art workshops from their studio in Naivasha close to Nairobi.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the arts for a range of publications and blogs at   https://joninbetween.blogspot.com.

ArtWay Visual Meditation October 17, 2021