Terry Hirst and Paa Ya Paa

Volume 14, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/02/2018
Elimo Njau

An East African Christian Artist (Painter, Sculptor) and Educator. He is Founder-Director of Paa Ya Paa Arts Centre started in Nairobi in 1965, and of Kibo Art Gallery in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Thank God for the English language, BBC, social media, and Paa Ya Paa in which Terry Hirst was one of the founding members.  This brought us together, and regardless of race, tribe and our different backgrounds, Terry became like a brother to me.  Poetry, music and the arts cut across boundaries to bring us together.

In Terry’s words from the Paa Ya Paa Review about his creative journey:

For me, the discovery of Paa Ya Paa Art Gallery, in my first weeks in Nairobi, was a revelation.  It was the place I had been looking for all my working life.  Here was a freedom to exhibit, and thus a challenge to create, that I had never before encountered – although I had looked.  It simply was not possible, where I had come from, to walk into a gallery run by artists and writers in the capital city, tell them about an exhibition you would like to make, and book it, without a cent in your pocket.  In independent Kenya it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world – another of ‘the freedoms that Europe had long forgotten,’ that Mzee Kenyatta had spoken of years before.

This to me was the core of the meaning of Paa Ya Paa.  It was where the successful and the enabled ensured the right of the newcomer, the young artist, the stranger, the perhaps not very successful exhibitor, to be seen and heard.  The exhibitions were well hung and well documented.  The publicity was good, the audiences were ready and waiting, and the opening nights were a joy of open friendship and moral support.

Thus Terry, as an artist, embraced Paa Ya Paa and had his first show in 1966. Afterward, he participated by giving talks and writing for the gallery pamphlets and the ‘Kazi Moto’ column in the Nation.  He taught art at Kenyatta College, as it was known then. After leaving the College, he earned his living as a graphic artist and media consultant.

Terry Hirst brought us together in mutual celebration of laughter through his cartoons.  We are able to celebrate or laugh at ourselves.  In fact he taught us how to laugh without getting angry or fighting one another!

Recognized as the first political cartoonist in Kenya, he free-lanced as a writer and cartoonist with the Daily Nation, and then with another founding member of Paa Ya Paa, Hilary Ng’weno, created the ever popular satirical magazine, JOE, in 1973 lasting nearly ten years; until the coup attempt on President Moi in 1982 caused JOE to close its doors - the environment for the media had changed.

I will mention two of his cartoons that captured my attention the most.  One was when he drew a cartoon for the Daily Nation ‘Dr Livingstone Crossing an African River’ that shows several barefoot Africans crossing the river as they carried Dr Livingstone shoulder-high on a wooden stretcher.  This seemed humorous to me as the missionary never touched the water!

The second drawing is a cartoon with a poem.  Kenya’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, led a group of naked women to protest against the building of a 60-storied tower in Uhuru Park. Later the women stripped naked to demonstrate against the construction. This act caught the creative imagination of cartoonist Terry Hirst.  He made a special drawing portraying the nakedness of the women, and included a handwritten poem by the late Jonathan Kariara who was also a founding member of Paa Ya Paa. This cartoon can be seen in Paa Ya Paa’s collection.

Sitting with Chinua Achebe in the early days of his coming to Kenya, Hirst remembered what Chinua Achebe said to him about the selfishness of the western artists’ concept of themselves. He said that in Africa the formally trained artist has three main responsibilities to his work. The first is to contribute his skills to the high-level manpower sector he has been trained for; the second is to contribute to the awakening of the creative spirit among young people and children; and the third, and only then, to apply himself to the responsibility he has to his own personal talent in his own work.  Terry said that these words really disturbed him, and as he had then been in Africa long enough as a guest . . . he had been handed a jembe.

After JOE magazine closed, he decided to create a local comic book.  He went to Kul Bhakoo, a leading publisher, and as a result the retelling of African folktales was revived.  The Pichadithi series was launched (picha/picture hadithi/story) and Hirst created the first ten comic books before other cartoonists took over. After the comic book series was popularized, Terry ventured out and discovered new markets for his work in development communications and his work began to find its way in pamphlets, posters for NGOs, governmental bodies, and the UN.

At my age of 85, having observed life in transition in ethnic and racial relationships, I can say that Terry Hirst’s presence in Kenya and East Africa was a blessing to us all. He will be severely missed as a cartoonist who would have helped us with uplifting cartoons at this period of political division between tribe and race to help once again to laugh at our mistakes as we move forward as brothers and sisters.

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