In Summary
  • At Makerere, she had specialised in sculpture but once she got married and returned to Kenya, there were no funds for a kiln so her art had to go on hold.
  • Then by the time she was ready to get back to work, she still lacked the funds to buy the art materials she required.

Rosemary Karuga is nearly 90 years old. But Kenya’s most senior woman artist is still going strong.

She lives abroad with her daughter, but she’s still creating the art form for which she’s renowned, a painterly style of paper collage.

Rosemary was recently named ‘Artist of the Month’ by the National Museums of Kenya’. Coincidentally, she is called a ‘Master Collage Artist’ by Red Hill Gallery where her first solo exhibition in years just opened, running through December 3.

Being Kenya’s first woman artist to study at Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art (from 1950-52), Rosemary is a living legend. But she didn’t come into her own professionally until the 1980s after she retired from teaching art in local primary schools.

At Makerere, she had specialised in sculpture but once she got married and returned to Kenya, there were no funds for a kiln so her art had to go on hold.

Then by the time she was ready to get back to work, she still lacked the funds to buy the art materials she required.

That is how Rosemary began creating collage art, using the paper packaging from Rexona soap and Unga flour. But even using those basic colours, the skill, beauty and imagination of her art was apparent.

Having been a classmate of Paa ya Paa’s Elimo Njau at Makerere, Rosemary got back on her artistic ‘feet,’ taking up a four-month artist’s residency at Paa ya Paa with the Njaus.

Recalling how Rosemary found her way back into Elimo’s life, Phillda Njau explained that in 1987, the long-lost artist magically reappeared right when Paa ya Paa was planning a ‘Women in Art in East Africa’ exhibition with Goethe Institut.

“Rosemary said she wanted to come back into the local art world, so her timing was perfect,” Phillda said. “It was after that show that Rosemary worked as an artist-in-residency at Paa ya Paa for several months,” she added.

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