It’s not only an art centre but at its centre is tranquility. The sun is blazing on the late afternoon when I arrive at the Paa Ya Paa on a motorbike that saves me the walk from the junction off Kiambu road. The silence is convivial, the birds are singing and the banana trees are flaunting their leaves.
Paa Ya Paa’s co-founder and director Mzee Elimo Njau receives me like his daughter. He hugs and welcomes me to a seat at the patio whose spectacle is unusual. On the floor is a lineup of little wooden sculptors of crocodiles and men. The women are carrying pots and the men are holding rungus. In between the assemble are three black cats standing and that mutual intimacy makes them all seem alive. Oblivious to the heat, Mzee brings me tea and sweet bananas. “It’s herbal and good for you, everything around here is authentic,” he tells me. The tea is really sweet, devoid of milk, I can taste lemon grass, honey, ginger and everything-nice.
When Philda Njau, Mzee’s wife of American decent who is also the international arts program coordinator at Paa Ya Paa arrives, she leads me to the main gallery. “Sit and have your tea here, look at the art pieces,” she warmly invites me. I slowly walk around. Pure serenity. I already dread departure time even before the start of the interview. At the fore front of the gallery is a mural of Jesus surrounded by the 12 disciples. Among numerous art depictions I see Maina Gikonyo’s portrait of Dedan Kimathi, some graffiti and Chandvi Shah’s painting of beautiful butterflies lost in colour. I marvel at Louis Duval’s painting of a woman cooking from an African pot. In 1997 the Paa Ya Paa art centre was destroyed by an inferno in an electrical freak accident. Dubbed ‘In Love With Africa’, this is the gallery’s debut exhibition since it’s notable renovation. Mzee and Philda join me at the grandiose glass table, Philda bringing me chocolate brownies and soda. I am still drinking my tea. I am spoilt.
At the heart of the gallery is a roofless partition with a eucalyptus tree rooted in the middle. “Colonialists brought in the eucalyptus tree from Australia because it needed water and so the Kenyan soil fed it. It’s years later and to date the trees and soil have never quarreled. Just like the tree, art is sacred. At Paa Ya Paa we reflect the African personality regardless of colonialism, tribalism, traditions and civilization,” says Mzee.
Founded in 1965, Paa Ya Paa is the oldest indigenous art gallery in Kenya. It’s a modern-day miracle that in just 14 years, the centre re-built on its status despite the loss of art work collected over many decades. “Art is not a building but an indigenous spirit which brings to life the omnipotence of God as He is the spirit that never dies. It’s what saved us,” says Elimo an accomplished painter, sculptor and muralist.
The adjacent gallery has the sign ‘In Love With Africa’ at the entrance. Inside are portraits of African presidents by Boyd Oyier. At the front is Kibacia Gatu’s beautifully beaded collage of Wangari Maathai labeled ’The African mother.’ This room exalts African personalities.
The ruin section of Paa Ya Paa is out of this world! Take my word when I say that the fire artistically burned down the gallery. The wall, floor and doors debris are striking, especially when accessorized with the art pieces. “After the renovation, we wanted to hold a meaningful exhibition. Africa came to mind and when we called out, over 50 artists with over 140 art pieces answered,” says Philda Njau with a satisfactory beam.
The late James Kangwana was among a group of art lovers, writers and artists from allover Africa who founded the gallery whose age is nearly clocking half a century. He is the one who named the centre, Paa Ya Paa; a witty wordplay to mean an antelope rises. Antelopes have long legs and can run fast. In the long stride Paa Ya Paa is taking it easy. Wonder if James knew that one day, the centre would burn down to re-live it’s name.
Mzee and Philda later invited me into their home for dinner. Mzee even suggested that I should sleep over. I felt at home and wanted to; just that I would have no change of clothes for the next morning to work. Only last week Mzee called to ask why they hadn’t heard from me in a while. “You know we love you,” he said :-)
“Kenyans appreciate art. They just don’t know that it’s in daily life. It’s how you arrange your flowers, your clothes, it’s the general order. While it’s true that art is abstract, it lives through your eyes in two forms; the tangible and intangible. At the end, art is about receiving and living. You are as much as an artist just by appreciating a piece of art. Same way you are a composer if you can value the music,” wise words from one of the fathers of East African culture & art Mzee Njau. As my love for Africa got re-acquainted, I fell hard in the acquainting of my love for Paa Ya Paa.
BONUS: AfricanColours ask Elimo Njau four questions