Terry Hirst (1932-2015): A Major & Continuing Influence

Volume 14, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/02/2018
Pheroze Nowrojee

A writer, human rights and constitutional lawyer and poet. He is the author of 'A Kenyan Journey'.

Terry grew up in England in a politically committed family, at a time when critical political choices had to be made, for this was 1930s Europe.  Europe and European tradition were at risk. In 1937, his father went to Spain, a volunteer to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It was individual commitment to democratic ideals. At a single digit age, Terry was selling party newspapers on the streets and being present at political meetings. At one of these in 1938, he remembers meeting Paul Robeson, one of the greatest artists of the people. Terry recalled:

‘The first American I met was an African giant who would bend to meet children – but to no other man.’

Terry came to Kenya in 1965.  He believed that, what had been true of 1930s Europe, was also true of 1960s Africa, not least of 1960s Kenya, that it was a time for critical political choices to be made, and a time when Africa and African traditions too were at serious risk.

However, older colonial attitudes remained in parts of Kenya, stubbornly and harmfully, and not enough changes were taking place. Terry carried on the correction process away from colonial thinking, taking it from the class room and the staff room to the university lecture hall and the Common Rooms, to the exhibition galleries, then the newspaper pages,  and finally to the whole country.

Terry’s cartoons began to appear in the newspapers. Terry saw Kenya’s future and East Africa’s future to be determined in the canvas of every painter, in the pages of every writer, the lines of every poet, in the work of every artist of every kind, in the delightful aspirations of every school student, in the fire of every university student and in the work of every worker. And, when approached by any of them, he tended to each. He extended to each the huge weight of all his talent, learning, political experience and time. And he did this while making it a mirthful meeting.

He reacted in this way because he came multi-talented to his profession. He was thus responding to fellow artists in every genre. Terry was a painter, an artist, a draughtsman, a cartoonist, a writer, a poet, a stage-hand, a cultural campaigner, a teacher, a critic, a book designer, a comic book writer and artist, a children’s book writer, a book illustrator, a framer, an exhibition backroom helper, a campaigner for the Left and a campaigner for right.

Terry Hirst held two famous exhibitions at Paa ya Paa.  The first in 1966 was entitled Black & White. It was subtitled Essays in Visual Journalism and consisted of forty large pen and ink drawings with washes.  These were sharp yet sympathetic satires with incisive drawings of urban Nairobi characters in the painful colonial change-over, then only three years old. It was a report (‘visual journalism’) on people on the streets, in nightclubs, in dukas, and on suburban avenues.  It was a smash hit. It was a rejection of the artistic thinking hitherto, that the Kenyan landscape was the only proper subject of art in Kenya. Terry himself said, ‘I set out to work on a series of drawings that are concerned with Now, . . . with the humour and sadness, the strength and delicacy, the ordinariness and uniqueness of people involved in building a new society.’

His second exhibition followed in 1967, THE AKUA-ABA series. In a major set of very beautiful and arresting  oils on canvas, Terry, using the Ghanaian cruciform fertility figure Akua-Aba,  dealt with the Mau Mau Emergency here and as well as with issues of the effects of the colonial century and the idiom of our art, Africa-wide. This series too was a breakthrough and a landmark. As a portraitist Terry’s water colour portrait (c. 1978) of Jonathan Kariara is my favourite.

As a children’s book writer and illustrator he did the very beautiful Mumo Books, and Take Me Home with Nereas Gicoru. In the Mumo books, Mumo’s small sister Sia, is named after our daughter Sia, herself named after Elimo Njau’s sister!

As a comic book writer and artist, Terry’s wonderful PICHADITHI Series also broke new ground. Generations grew up on them. Copies, belonging originally to a parent, will be found even now with children in North America and the UK, as in Kenya. A patient browse through our pavement booksellers’ wares will also repay one with a dusty nugget from the past.

As a public communicator the massive impact of JOE Magazine and JOE Homestead are part of our public social history. Terry’s early eye on ‘The Bar Paintings of East Africa’ was a leader in writing on popular art. Terry was a rigorous yet supportive critic of creative work. As a reader his huge private library was not only the collection of a voracious reader but of a reader of exceptionally wide interests.

As a politically committed citizen Terry stood for social and economic justice. He never gave up his convictions, but lived and created all his work by those beliefs, always for the good, never to destroy the work of others or to demean anyone, always for Kenya, always sensitive to others. This was truly a renaissance man.

Like all very funny persons he was a very serious person. He saw in each of these arenas, political tasks, and himself always as a political worker, as indeed he had been from the age of six. His ‘political understanding of Kenya’ is not to be surprised at. His understanding was not of Kenya alone. It was of political forces, whether those arising here at home, or those operating globally. He had seen every Kenyan issue very early on, including those that we are still grappling with today.

Terry was a major influence on all he worked with, students, colleagues, or co-workers.  In my book of 2007 on Pio Gama Pinto, I thanked Terry ‘for being a compass to me throughout, as he has been to fellow artists, writers and performers and to generations of our creative youth over the past four decades’. 

He was one of the brightest intellects we have known, who placed all that intelligence and talent for creating beauty and justness at the service of those ideals and Kenya. He taught that ideals were to be implemented in the homestead, in the nation, and among the people, and he did what he taught.

He and his massive talent achieved those ideals. His huge talent in the political cartoon and its influence has been highlighted by all our political cartoonists. Tribute after tribute has been paid. Terry Hirst’s political cartoons achieved the birth in Kenya of successive generations of some of the world’s most talented and bravest cartoonists.

It is the great achievement of Terry Hirst and of those who are following in his footsteps, all our editorial and political cartoonists, that their art, their political acumen and understanding and shared ideals give voice to the people, as we laugh disagreement, condemnation and shame at the perpetrators of our nation’s ills. Now it is no longer easy for corruption or the abuse of power or timid publishing houses, to gag that popular voice.  Terry and our cartoonists following him have entrenched democratic practice in our public life.

Our cartoonists have been a major part of the forces of liberation in our country. They play a big part in marshalling support for change and in the daily voicing of the unspoken thoughts of powerless Kenyans. They deprive tyranny of legitimacy. They tear away the masks of injustice.

Terry’s example and influence enabled this democratic challenge against oppression. After 2010, our political cartoonists, with daily vigilance, are implementing the Constitution and fighting against its claw-back, now the most needed, and the most dangerous, of public work. They are protecting every Kenyan against denial of the rights, freedoms and safeguards in our Constitution. We, in turn, have to protect these protectors of ours. 

Terry started all this. And there is no passing away of him, only a still present and living influence in the minds and work of countless Kenyans for the national good.v

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