Samwel Wanjau deserves the pride of place among Kenya’s greatest political and cultural heroes. Yet he is still largely unknown by the vast majority of Kenyans, in spite of his being considered by cultural connoisseurs one, if not the finest sculptor the country has ever produced.
His anonymity is in part due to Wanjau being way ahead of his time, but it is also partly due to the negligible value given to culture and the arts by Kenyan society at large, despite culture being the centrepiece of our national identity.
As a child growing up in Mukurweini, Nyeri, Wanjau was handy with a knife and often created toys out of wood. But when the Mau Mau war of liberation broke out in the early 1950s, Wanjau fled to the forest with other freedom fighters and began carving wooden hand-guns out for the fighters.
In a sense, this was his artistic apprenticeship; cut his teeth in the Aberdares, where he remained until after the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi was apprehended by the British, working with local collaborators.
After that, sculpting became Wanjau’s stock and trade. He worked for a time with Akamba carvers, before moving to Nairobi where he later complained that he got peanuts for carving functional items commissioned by local businessmen.
Fortunately, he found his way to Paa ya Paa Art Centre, where Elimo Njau effectively took him in and let him carve to his heart’s content on the Ridgeways centre’s spacious lawn.
It was from there that Kenya’s former Attorney General Charles Njonjo met and commissioned Wanjau to construct a sculpture which was to stand outside Parliament. That is when the artist produced his magnificent nine-feet tall Mau Mau Freedom Fighter out of cement and reinforced steel wire.
But Njonjo reportedly rejected the sculpture, either for the ferocity of the fighter’s militant expression, or because he didn’t wish to be seen endorsing the Mau Mau. Whatever the case, the magnificent sculpture found a ready home at Paa ya Paa, where it stands to date.
In 1984, Wanjau art got fresh impetus when the German-American gallery owner Ruth Schaffner arrived in Nairobi, and bought Gallery Watatu. She organised exhibitions that exposed Wanjau’s art in Germany and the United States.
Wanjau eventually moved back to Mururweni, never having received the recognition that he deserved. His singular compensation is that his two sons, Jackson and Anthony are also sculptors carrying on with their father’s legacy.