Jak Katarikawe - An Immortal East African Artist

Volume 15, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2019

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Jak Katarikawe was a beloved East African artist who wasn’t just a painter of allegorical landscapes of Ugandan rural life. He was also a charming storyteller who’d hold his audience (be it a client, longtime patron or friend) rapt, as he interpreted the stories he had just painted. He’d always tell his tales with a twinkle in his eye as his characters, be they elephants or actual human beings, were often involved in some sort of illicit love affair; the kind he might have known first-hand back home in Uganda, before he came to Kenya in the late 1970s.

Jak didn’t arrive in Nairobi until he was nearly forty years old, or thereabouts. He was never sure of the year and month in which he was born, but he approximated it at 1938. That means that on October 19 when he passed on; Jak would have spent the same numbers of years living in Kenya as he did in Uganda.

Yet, as Jak grew less capable of painting the whimsical way he had done for a good forty years, producing brilliant and beautiful artworks that went into public institutions and private collections all over the world; he refused to ‘go home’ to Uganda. Despite having pumped a large portion of the revenues he had made from his paintings into constructing his family home in Kigezi, southwestern Uganda, he no longer seemed to identify with the land of his forefathers. Kenya is where he had become King of contemporary East African art in the 1980s and 1990s. So in spite of his weakening condition and his difficulty in paying his rent, Jak remained in the flat on Forest Avenue (now Wangari Maathai Boulevard) until the very end.

Until his death, Jak was a living legend who inspired younger artists by both his talent and apparent financial success. He was among the first East Africans whose artworks could sell for hundreds of thousands of shillings a painting. He is also one of the first whose works were exhibited abroad, in Europe and the USA.

Jak’s legendary status was confirmed the same day he died, when news spread like wildfire on social media that Jak had left us. He’d been found alone and unconscious by a cousin who had come to his flat to cook for him since Jak’s wife Florence was back in Uganda. Friends had tried to get him to accompany her home as he had built a house for the family in Kigezi. But he had refused. He died while en route to the Hospital.

In his prime, Jak was known as an ‘African [Marc] Chagall’, named after the 20th century modern artist who, like Jak, created colourful, whimsical paintings that invariably had an enchanting narrative to back up his artwork. Unfortunately, in his latter days, Jak was better known as a beggar who was frequently almost evicted from his flat by an angry landlord who was only appeased when one of the artist’s longtime patrons stepped in at the last minute to ensure that Jak wasn’t tossed out on the street. They would pay his rent, including the arrears.

A few months before he died, Jak was offered the means to go home to Kigezi with all his luggage and the remnants of his illustrious career. Alan Donovan set aside a substantial chunk of money to assist Jak to enjoy his last days in the comfort of his own Ugandan home. Yet Jak rejected that proposal as well.

Jak never had a chance to go to school since his polygamous father had retired by the time he was born, the last born of the old man’s youngest wife. But Jak had natural talent. Plus his mother was artistic. Jak once recalled how she used to paint lovely designs in ash all around her mud and wattle hut as a means of attracting the old man to come for supper at her home. In an interview with the Nairobi Times in the early 1980s, Jak also remembered how he was inspired by the colourful stained glass windows of the nearby church. He said the windows had shown him the value of brilliant translucent colours and the storytelling power of art.

Jak’s big break came after he was hired to be a driver for David Cooke, the Makerere University professor who found Jak’s sketches stashed in the boot of his car. Professor Cooke realised that Jak had talent which he felt should be nurtured. So he arranged for him to be mentored by Professor Sam Ntiru, who at the time was head of Makerere’s Art Department and a leading Tanzanian artist.

After spending some time at Makerere, Jak had his first solo exhibition in 1966 at the Uganda National Theatre. It was like a coming of age for him for that is when he realized he was truly an artist. But like so many Ugandans who had to migrate to Kenya due to the political turmoil in his country, Jak moved to Nairobi in the mid-1970s. Initially he worked and stayed with the Tanzanian sculptor and painter Elimo Njau, who as co-founder of Paa ya Paa Art Centre had set up visiting artists’ studios where refugees like Jak found a safe haven in which to work. Subsequently, Jak exhibited at Alliance Francaise and Gallery Watatu. He also worked closely with Nani Croze and Dr Eric Krystal in the 1980s when they were organizing artists’ workshops to create works reflecting Eric’s priority of family planning. Jak produced some of his most memorable paintings during that time.  

Jak was already established when the late Ruth Schaffner bought Gallery Watatu in 1985 from Yony Waite, the Guam-born American artist who co-founded Watatu with the late Robin Anderson and David Hart. Ruth quickly took Jak under her wing and soon became his mentor, mother-figure, accountant and bank. She took his art worldwide, particularly to West Germany and the US where she owned two galleries in Los Angeles; and sold his oil paintings like hotcakes.

Jak, who had never been to school and had only learned how to sign his name from Dr Cooke, grew increasingly reliant on Ruth. There is little doubt that Ruth made a fortune from Jak’s artworks, but since he didn’t keep his own accounts, nor did he know how much his artworks were sold for overseas, no one will ever know the kind of commission Ruth the art dealer took from Jak’s paintings.

What we do know is that Jak was perfectly happy painting in his spacious rented rooms upstairs at the Paradise Hotel on Tom Mboya Street. But Ruth convinced him the neighborhood was so ‘dangerous’ that he needed to move. She shifted him to the most expensive flats in Nairobi, the Norfolk Apartments just next to the historic hotel. She paid his rent out of his earnings which undoubtedly contributed to the penury he incurred in his latter days.

But once Ruth passed on in 1986, Jak refused to move. He continued to pay the rent despite the cramped quarters she had moved him into. Without her regular sales of his art, Jak had very little revenue and thus, his financial problems began immediately upon Ruth’s death.

Jak Katarikawe

Jak never recovered from Ruth’s passing. He went into mourning and never got over his grief. Nor was it assuaged by Ruth’s husband, the Ivorian counsel Adama Diawara who took over the gallery after Ruth was gone. When the Ghanaian journalist, Osei Kofi took over the gallery for Diawara, he held an exhibition for Jak around 2007. He shared the limelight with Sane Wadu and Wanyu Brush. But even that didn’t shake Jak out of the doldrums he’d fallen into after losing his beloved Ruth. 

Ruth’s death also had a profound effect on his painting. Jak could never reactivate his effortless style of visual storytelling. Despite being pestered for years by art collectors from all over the world who frequently came personally to his Forest Road flat (where he finally moved to after having no choice) to buy his art, he could never regain his creative edge. He soon exhausted his supply of the paintings that expressed the ‘old Jak’. Nonetheless, any time one of his older paintings has gone up for auction, the prices have soared. Many people believe Jak’s art will only accrue in value over time, just as it did for other artists who died poor, such as Vincent Van Gogh and even Rembrandt. But now their paintings are valued as many millions in whatever currency you prefer to quote.

Jak will primarily be remembered for the luminous artworks he created between the 1970s and 1990s. But to his friends, he’ll be remembered as the sweet-spirited gentleman whose skill in visual storytelling was sublime.

Jak was buried quietly at his Kigezi home on October 28, just over a week after he died. Tributes to him continue to pour in on social media. And many Kenyan artists are still waiting to hold a memorial service for Jak, yet they respect the wishes of the family who wanted their father buried quietly without fanfare. Fortunately, his art has already made him immortal and he will always be ranked as one of East Africa’s finest artists.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 February 2019 04:03

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