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Suggesting that Yony Waite is not quite the artist she is cracked up to be is a bit like vandalising a national monument.

After all, now in her early 80s, Waite is the grande dame of East African art, a treasure who has been with us seemingly for ever — painter, gallery and studio owner, workshop organiser, champion of worthwhile causes and generally fizzing with energy like someone half her age.

Waite is as much a part of the region’s art scene as anyone, and to criticise her painting and drawing is practically heresy; tantamount to an attack on the foundations of the industry itself.

Waite’s training (a fine arts degree from the University of California from way back, plus a steeping in the techniques of Chinese and Japanese painting) and the confidence that has given her, has left her well able to withstand any suggestion that her output could on occasions be less than perfect.

For me, it remains a puzzle.

On a good day there are few to beat Waite, with her quick, sympathetic line, her knack for compressing description into a flicker or a flurry of ink, her assertive drawings that capture the essence of her subject in a few deft strokes.

Yet on a bad day her drawing can suddenly go awry, showing her occasionally as being prone to error as we all are. Perhaps it is because her mistakes are so unexpected that we notice them at all.

Her paintings sometimes open up areas for regret…

The small watercolours can be absolutely spot on, a joy to see, every mark radiating knowledge of the form, weight and feel of a branch, or the rough essence of a tangle of bush on a hill.

Yet others, overlarge, in sludgy browns, greys and greens and usually resorting to pattern in an attempt to save the day, seem to lack any structure to support their excesses.

Waite’s formal skills are in place, she cares about her subject to the point of passion, immerses herself in it; yet these big set piece paintings somehow fail to convince.

I think it may be quite simply that she spreads herself too thinly and treats her paintings as she does her sketches… dashes them off in the excitement of the moment, in the grip of the big idea, and that in this rush to canvas she sacrifices much of the ability she has built up over a lifetime, perhaps believing that some latent knowledge will guide her arm and pull her through.


But I saw a small watercolour drawing by Waite this past week that was stunningly good.

It was of a fir bough, on paper and handsomely mounted and framed, placed on an easel at the Polka Dot Gallery in Karen, Nairobi.

The trouble is, it was so good — clear, descriptive, sensitive and generating a sufficient touch of unease about the tree’s sharp needles to make it compelling — that it cast a pall over some of the other paintings and drawings there.

And there were many of them — around 100 at a rough count.

The exhibition, of pages from her sketchbooks, of watercolour drawings and paintings plus a large and handsome weaving, is called Game’s Up! and is designed to warn us of the increasing threat to our vanishing wildlife.

Running to February 10, it demonstrates her reach and the variety of her output, but also something of her maddeningly variable quality.

There was a large oil-on-canvas of a cheetah, bizarrely wearing a smog mask, a heavy-handed comment on pollution perhaps, and several large and muddy oils of animals… I think I could make out wildebeest in one, giraffes in another, and a lot of trees and bush.

But it was with the fir bough, several other watercolour landscapes and her small sketches that Waite came alive.

Baboons, elephants, a shaggy wildebeest; these were wonderful little drawings, mostly in ink, that pinned the animals to the wall. In fact the smaller the drawings the better they were, as though the artist seems to get a bit lost as she ups the size.

There was a group of drawings in ink and wash made during a trip to Mexico — strong confident lines, moments caught forever and held in her heart.

Most artists are fairly careful what they show in public. Why? Because they all make a mess of it now and then and while they say doctors can bury their mistakes, artists have to rely on the spiral binding of sketchbooks to remove theirs. Or put them on a very high shelf.

Yony Waite is not fairly careful about what she shows. Out it all goes, considered or slight, from sketchbook or easel to the wall; mistakes and all.
It shows confidence and a refreshing honesty to be so open, this willingness to reveal herself warts and all, but it might not be entirely wise.