Kenya's really really artist
EACH morning in the African savanna, where dawns blaze orange, and tan grasses wave over fathomless spans, a group of long-striding native women and scampering children swish their way through that wide open space toward a crooked stone house with a coconut-leaf roof. They're looking for an artist named Jony Waite, a woman who has work, pay, and a thousand ideas up her sleeves.
''They tell me they want a 'gunia,' which is Swahili for gunnysack,'' says Jony. ''That means they want to sit with their friends and their kids for the day and embroider. So I give them a large piece of local burlap that I've sketched a design on, and they sit down to sew, talk, nurse their children, and drink tea - all at once. It's social.''
It's also economical and artful - an opportunity for the local women to supplement their families' small peasant incomes by creating beautiful wall hangings together. Jony pays them by the day, and everyone gets the same pay, ''whether they produced more or less than the others, whether they are expert sewers or not. I pay them for their effort. We do lots of experiments, and much of what they sew never gets shown or sold. I tap into their artistic spontaneous side, which sometimes curbs quality control. If the work is done wrong or too roughly, I have to take it out and it has to be redone, but the women don't mind because they are paid for the day anyway, and they've had a good time.''
''Kono'' is the Swahili word for ''hand,'' and ''mkonokono'' (''really really handmade'') is an expression coined by Jony Waite to describe these weavings created by a community of hands. For the past two years she has challenged the notion of art as a purely personal, single-handed venture by merging her own kaleidoscope talents with those of the Masai, Kamba, Kikuyu, Taita, and Kalenjin women who live near her home between Athi River and Machakos, some 25 miles southeast of Nairobi, Kenya. The results of their joint creativity, an exhibition entitled ''Mkonokono Wall Hangings,'' recently appeared in Jony Waite's Watatu Gallery in Nairobi.
Twenty-nine of these hangings, made of local materials such as sisal string, seeds, and animal skin swatches, embroidered and appliqued on hessian cloth, were displayed. They are big (averaging about four square feet), and to stand in the middle of the gallery and take them all in at once was to be thrown into the vast East African bush where bearded wildebeests leap, ostriches prance, zebras cradle on each other's necks, and Masai boys draped in red tend their spotted goats. I marveled at how the textures, colors, and life forms of the bush have been so authentically translated into these textiles.
Jony Waite, a United States citizen born in Guam and raised in Somalia, is by no means an entrepreneur making it rich on the backs of cheap local labor. In her 20 years of living in Kenya, she has become one of the country's best-known artists, making it on her own individual artistry long before undertaking the joint effort with her women friends. It would be difficult to spend time in Kenya without running into her murals and paintings: They're in the wildlife lodges, on the walls of the airport's grill, transit lounge and restaurant, and in the lobbies and dining rooms of most of the major coastal and inland hotels - not to mention the homes of hundreds of people in Kenya and far beyond.
Like Jony's personal work, the mkonokono wall hangings have sold well. ''We have fans,'' she grins. ''Even a Rockefeller - Nelson, I think - bought one.'' But Jony doesn't rely on these sales for her income. The hangings are moderately priced ($100 to $300), fitting with the purpose of the Watatu Gallery, which is ''to provide showing space for many kinds of artists and access to art for people who can't afford to pay a fortune.''
Jony Waite and her Kenyan cohorts have kindled a dynamic and unique art form. ''The hangings we produce together are better than if I did them alone, or they did them without me,'' she says.''We're inspired by one another's work. I've seen the creative way they respond to my designs when I leave it up to them to fill in open spaces or elaborate on their own ideas. And I've come to know the stitching and kinds of materials they like, so I keep that in mind while working on my part.''
The mkonokono hangings are a rare example of the best of two worlds coming together. Jony offers a strong sense of design plus commercial acumen, finish, and sophistication, while the local women offer hands that are skilled and imaginative. ''Most Kenyan women have the fabulous gift of talent in the hand,'' she says.''People are starving for the feel of real hands in their environment, and here the greatest resource is the very hands that are missing in the rest of the world.''
It might be that the truest artistry is prodding others to realize theirs. If so, Jony Waite is a really really artist.