The artist from San Antonio honors Kenya’s women’s movement of the 1960s through artworks.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga creates art that honors her and helps her stay connected to her roots in Kenya.

SAN ANTONIO – Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga’s journey as an artist began when she was just six years old in Kenya. While her mother taught at the local school, her grandmother took her to a village where her friends made baskets. She was immediately hooked and soon learned to weave her own baskets.

“When I went to the University of Nairobi, where I studied design, I found that I already had the basics of the profession,” she said.

Wanjiku Gakunga then moved to San Francisco on a scholarship before moving to San Antonio. She has lived in Alamo City for 20 years now.

While in San Antonio, she recalled seeing recycled cans outside while visiting a friend’s house. She was intrigued by the rust and the patterns that covered the can.

“I was wondering what can I do with these cans? How can I create art?” she said. “That’s really what made me think of the Mabati women.”

Mabati means sheet metal. The Mabati Women’s Group was founded in Kenya in the 1960s.

“In this country we go through the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and in Kenya women also go through their own movement where they empower themselves, here they become independent and fight for their rights,” said Wanjiku Gakunga

Blech has been associated with these women as they covered their homes with mabati to collect clean water.

She began experimenting with sheet metal in her art to honor her grandmother and the Mabati women.

Wanjiku Gakunga only becomes an artist after Mother Nature has done her work. She leaves metal sheets in her garden for months. Texas weather will then contribute to its rusting and coloring.

“When I bring her inside, I roll out and I’m like a little kid because I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Some of them are darker, some are lighter. So once I roll it out and see what’s inside, the creative process begins.”

Each piece comes out uniquely different. Sometimes Wanjiku Gakunga cuts the sheet metal and paints it. Sometimes she just applies a sealer to prevent it from rusting further.

Some of their sheet metal parts will also feature crocheted wire, woven as if it were fabric. “It adds a delicacy to what is otherwise an industrial material.”

Wanjiku Gakunga said that every piece of art she creates has a connection to her home village in Kenya. It’s her way of staying connected to her roots thousands of miles away.

“I’m not into anything without a story,” she said. “That’s what grounds us, that’s our roots.”

You can see Wanjiku’s artwork at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
You can also see more of her artwork here.

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