A trip to assess a new work of art done for the Coca-Cola Atlanta office led us through the hills and fertile banana country synonymous with Kisii. We arrived at a homestead with heaps of soapstone around each building in different stages of finishing. Women sat on worn out Kisii stools washing and polishing sculpted forms. As we stood in the compound taking in the artistic aura a man walked out of one of the houses.
You couldn’t miss his grey beard, piercing eyes and artistic look. It was Elkana Ongesa, sculptor extraordinaire in the flesh. After a warm smile and greeting, he led us to the shed where the masterpiece stood; It represented its name well; the Birds of Hope. There in its fullness was a semi-rough finished dove, 5-foot tall dove, weighing 5 tonnes with its wings tucked in to embrace a bottle of Coca Cola. It was magnificent, to say the least.
Elkana was born in 1944 into a family of ten siblings who depended on soapstone carving, basket weaving and very creative stone carving for their livelihood. His father was a pioneer trainer who trained prisoners, imparting skills that they could employ after serving their time. This was a milestone because hitherto, prisoners engaged in hard labour which gave them a small saving they would receive upon release. However, they had no skills to secure gainful employment after their release from prison and the training helped them progress. The training and the small savings changed their lives as it enabled them to have a skill and be able to buy tools and start their enterprises.
In his childhood, Elkana and his age mates, made clay toys, smoking pipes and animals. Many times they produced bulls which they took to battle in their play time. The bull that did not lose his horns to his opponent during the battles won the game. After his early education, he joined Kisii High School where he was attached to the school library where he spent more time reading. In The Time Magazine, he read about great works of art and artists that allowed him to combine his early childhood and encounters with art and pursue art at O levels. He studied a private candidate because the school did not offer art as a subject.
Elkana then went to Makerere University in Uganda in 1967 to do Fine Art then came back to Kisii High School to teach followed by a stint at YMCA Shauri Moyo Centre and Kisii Teachers College. At Kisii Teachers College he was initiated into the Kegorogoro Cultural Festival that brought together artists, culture, music, dance, poetry, carving and blacksmiths from the greater Nyanza. Luo Nyanza, Maasai, Kuria and Karamajong participated in the festival. Shortly after, Elkana then proceeded to Canada for further studies.
The next time we met, there was more time to talk about his journey as a sculptor that started as a young man in Kisii and had taken him to 22 countries. Though he often travels to talk about his art at international events, he wished he could do it more in Kenya and Africa as a whole. His words echoed the sentiments of the Mozambique artist late Malangatana Ngwenya.
Ngwenya who was eager to visit African countries and encourage young African artists got more invites from outside Africa. Like many great artists of Africa, Malangatana is more celebrated in Europe than in Africa with many of the books written about him done by Europeans, especially from Italy which was his second home. We met two years before his death, and time was running out for his wish to come to Kenya and speak to Africans. Sadly this was one wish that did not come to fruition.
In conversation, Elkana raised another major concern that most artists do not write their memoirs or keep diaries of their process. He noted that those who do, never make them available to those who needed it to receive insight, strength and hope to go on. He says that it is that way because African tradition has always been based on storytelling not writing. Culturally, this meant that issues and phenomena were discussed in groups, pathways charted and plans executed and when the issue or challenge was overcome, no record was made of it.
He continued to say that although the Kisii people are popularly known to be soapstone carvers, it is really the Karamajong who carve soapstone. The Kisii should rightfully be known as Kisii stone carvers because they do not have the actual soapstone. As a result and in view of the given value of the stone found there, The World Trade Organization (WTO) has given the Kisii stone a geographical indication. The arrival of Alexander Mugendi changed the Kisii from the making traditional products to making commercial products.
The Karamoja, on the other hand, used granite and marble to create beautiful abstract bulls and humans that were sourced and sold by African Heritage based in Nairobi. Hussein Kamukuji, one of the great sculptors was selling his work to African heritage as well as exhibiting them at the Nairobi Gallery.
These developments saw stone carving shift to more durable materials and larger pieces. One outstanding piece is the Dancing birds that grace the US Embassy in Nairobi that was carved from one granite rock weighing 30. The birds were inspired by the need to thank the world community and it was gifted to the Embassy as the only international community willing to provide the space it needed for display.
Dr. Lilac Osanjo is well known in the design fraternity as a career designer, educator and leading design visionary. She sets the bar high and continually raises it by using design to communicate possibilities through papers, articles, and exhibitions on design for health, agriculture, renewable energy systems and sustainable livelihoods in Africa. She is the Director of School of The Arts and Design, University of Nairobi and founding member of the Design Kenya Society, the Network of Afrika Designers (NAD) and Afrika Design Forum.