by Elsbeth Court – First published in Thelathini in 2003 Kenya and Japan meld vibrantly in the art and life of California – born Jony Waite a.k.a Yony Wai^te. She prefers the latter because it is a pronunciation she hears in Africa and Asia where she has been making art for 60 years. Her formative art education was at University of California with the minimalist landscape painter Richard Diebenkorn, and in Matsumoto, Japan, where she studied sumi-e (a style of nature painting with ground charcoal, derived from Chinese calligraphy) and mingei (Contemporary craftwork) with Sanshiro Ikeda, who was a designated national treasure.
Waite’s enduring relationship with Kenya – she is a naturalised citizen – begun in the 1960s, when she bonded with its land and people. She harnesses her abundant energy and graphic fluency in observational drawing into diverse materials. Her personal output is distinctive, while her communal art activities promote East African participation around the world. Two remarkable projects are “Women Beyond Borders” in which 11 local women artists made sculptures incorporating a standard sized box for an international touring exhibition. The second, the extraordinary African Story Snake, is a 50 metre performance banner devised initially for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Some 100 persons in Lamu contributed story pictures on the theme “What I would miss most if the earth was gone forever” which they appliqued and embroidered on bui-bui cloth. Over the years, the Snake’s performance has already been celebrated in many international festivals.
As an artist and entrepreneur, Yony Waite has contributed significantly to the growth of art. Her hybrid style is a combination of action drawing – she sketches obsessively – and sumi-e, whose qualities – linearity, tonal grey forms, minimal colour, shallow depth – are apparent in Waite’s practice. Her animal imagery differs from the prevalent conventions used in Kenya such as landscape and animal – based narrative. “Thorns and horns” are recurring themes, referring to the architecture of Acacia trees and to the abundance of plains animals. Waite’s signature motif is the wildebeest, that large, scruffy gregarious antelope which serves as a metaphor for peaceful survival through adaptation in the wilderness by regular migrations to several habitats. Waite emphasises that the wildebeest is true to its name – a wild beast that has never been tamed.
Yony Waite has been instrumental in the establishment of effective art institutions in Kenya. In 1969, she and two colleagues founded the eponymous Gallery Watatu to meet the need for an international gallery in Nairobi. In the early 1980s, Waite formed an art and development project Mkono Kono (“fine craft work”) which grew into Wildebeeste Workshop International, based, with studio and gallery, in Lamu. Waite explains that the project was “set up to provide jobless people with creative work while at the same time stressing environmental action”. Worldwide appreciation of her artwork indicates a fascination with her intriguing oeuvre which, with all its internationalism, is imbued with what has been described as a touch of frontier spirit. Long before the avante-garde went post-colonial, Yony Waite was making art-series and networks through which she shares so wonderfully her love of art.