Rose­mary Karuga: The mas­ter­ful artist you’ve never heard about

90-year-old col­lage artist stakes her long over­due claim on the Kenyan art scene


She is lit­tle known lo­cally but surely de­serves a na­tional award

Rose­mary Karuga is nearly 90 years old. But Kenya’s most se­nior woman artist is still go­ing strong. She lives abroad with her daugh­ter, but she’s still cre­at­ing the art form for which she’s renowned, a painterly style of paper col­lage.

Rose­mary was re­cently named ‘Artist of the Month’ by the Na­tional Mu­se­ums of Kenya’. Co­in­ci­den­tally, she is called a ‘Mas­ter Col­lage Artist’ by Red Hill Gallery where her first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in years just opened, run­ning through De­cem­ber 3.

Be­ing Kenya’s first woman artist to study at Mak­erere Uni­ver­sity’s Mar­garet Trow­ell School of Fine Art (from 1950-52), Rose­mary is a living leg­end. But she didn’t come into her own pro­fes­sion­ally un­til the 1980s af­ter she re­tired from teach­ing art in lo­cal pri­mary schools.

At Mak­erere, she had spe­cialised in sculp­ture but once she got mar­ried and re­turned to Kenya, there were no funds for a kiln so her art had to go on hold. Then by the time she was ready to get back to work, she still lacked the funds to buy the art materials she re­quired.

That is how Rose­mary be­gan cre­at­ing col­lage art, us­ing the paper pack­ag­ing from Rex­ona soap and Unga flour. But even us­ing those ba­sic colours, the skill, beauty and imag­i­na­tion of her art was ap­par­ent.

Hav­ing been a class­mate of Paa ya Paa’s Elimo Njau at Mak­erere, Rose­mary got back on her artis­tic ‘feet,’ tak­ing up a four-month artist’s res­i­dency at Paa ya Paa with the Njaus.

Re­call­ing how Rose­mary found her way back into Elimo’s life, Phillda Njau ex­plained that in 1987, the long-lost artist mag­i­cally reap­peared right when Paa ya Paa was plan­ning a ‘Women in Art in East Africa’ ex­hi­bi­tion with Goethe Institut. “Rose­mary said she wanted to come back into the lo­cal art world, so her tim­ing was per­fect,” Phillda said. “It was af­ter that show that Rose­mary worked as an artist-in-res­i­dency at Paa ya Paa for sev­eral months,” she added.

In a ra­dio interview with the BBC Art House, Rose­mary ex­plained she had been com­mis­sioned in the 1990s to il­lus­trate Amos Tu­tuola’s mag­i­cal book, The Palm Wine Drinkard, which sub­se­quently led to her col­lage ‘il­lus­tra­tions’ be­ing ex­hib­ited in Paris, then in Lon­don and later in the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem, USA.

The Paris ex­hi­bi­tion in­cluded a trip to France for Rose­mary, who told BBC how much she was im­pressed by Parisians who were highly ap­pre­cia­tive of fine art and who also hon­oured the artists. She added it was not that way in Kenya, where her in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion did not put bread on her table. That is how, when times were tough, she ended up sell­ing her col­lages ‘for a song’ to Sarang Gallery. Over time, Sarang’s Mahin­dra Shah ac­quired a good num­ber of her works, quite a few of which are in the Red Hill show. The rest are ei­ther on loan from the Na­tional Mu­seum or from the Rossler-musch’s pri­vate col­lec­tion.

Rose­mary wasn’t able to at­tend her ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing. But what stands out in her col­lage art is both the del­i­cacy of her at­ten­tion to de­tail and her ap­pre­ci­a­tion of ru­ral life. She cre­ates col­lage ‘paint­ings’ of ev­ery­one from shep­hards and wa­ter or wood car­ri­ers to farm­ers, fam­i­lies, land­scapes and wildlife. Still ‘paint­ing’ with coloured papers, which are now care­fully cut from glossy mag­a­zines (not Unga sacks), her col­lage art has a sweet feeling of al­most child­like naivete. But her nu­anced ap­proach to colour shad­ing with finely shred­ded and care­fully glued lines makes her col­lages look al­most im­pres­sion­is­tic and cer­tainly wor­thy of the kind of honour that Rose­mary saw Parisians give to their favourite painters, be it Renoir, De­gas or Pi­casso.

Cur­rently, the Na­tional Mu­seum is said to own quite a few more Rose­mary Karuga col­lages. One hopes that in fu­ture the Mu­seum can bring out all those pre­cious col­lage ‘paint­ings’ by Rose­mary and give them a per­ma­nent pride of place for the world to see. For if there is one Kenyan artist who de­serves to be recog­nised and even awarded by this coun­try for her con­tri­bu­tion to con­tem­po­rary Kenyan art, it is Rose­mary. And she de­serves it now, in her life­time. KANDA KING IN THIKA

Pop­u­lar dancer and singer Kanda King and the Rhythmz Band per­form ev­ery Wed­nes­day at Club Leos in Thika. Kanda and his col­leagues per­form both new and old songs at the spot. Shows be­gin at 8pm un­til late. Mean­while the Per­sia Resto Pubs and Lounge on Thika Road presents the Sassy Party ev­ery Wed­nes­day. THE JUNC­TION MU­SI­CAL

The Junc­tion Mall on Ngong Road hosts the Junc­tion Mu­si­cal ev­ery Thurs­day at the Roof top park­ fea­tures live mu­sic and dance per­for­mances from var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties in Kenya. Event which starts at 9am and ends at 7pm fea­tures wooden carv­ings, arts and crafts.

Com­piled by Amos Ngaira an­­tion­


Above: Ros­mary Karuga with one of her art works. Left: One of her paint­ings that was on dis­play last week at the Red Hill Art Gallery in Limuru.

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