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Art: Wanjiku is still weeping years later.

Artist Geraldine Robarts has produced a prolific portfolio of paintings since the 1960s. One of her most memorable pieces is a painting she created in 2007 for a women's art competition and themed on ordinary people.

Named Wanjiku, the large oil on wood painting features the abstract image of a woman inside a hut in the early morning. Her back is bent over as she prepares porridge for her family. Behind her, her daughter is waking up and stretching. On the other side of the painting, another daughter is holding the youngest child in the family.

Unlike her usual preference for bright colours, Robarts painted Wanjiku in dense shades of black, brown, jungle green and straw yellow, which aptly capture the dimly lit interior of a mud-walled hut. Then you notice the bands of paint streaking downward, like tears or rain. It is an unintended phenomenon that has puzzled the painter for the last 10 years.

Robarts created the painting to represent the lot of many women. 'Wanjiku' is a girl's name but is also a title symbolic of the ordinary person. 'Wanjiku cries for all the women who spend a lifetime working hard and who go unnoticed by society and the world,' says Robarts.

She explains that the artwork first started oozing paint the year after she created it, and the 'weeping' has continued ever since. She varnished the surface to try and bind the paint but the dripping went on. Eventually, the piece had to be moved outdoors.

Then in 2016, she applied a thick coat of acrylic resin. This helped to stabilise the painting for a while and also gave it a glossy brilliance. But 18 months later, the paint had eaten through the solid resin and the discharge resumed. When you take a closer look, you can actually see tiny holes in the resin where the paint has seeped through.

Some art specialists around the world attribute this strange reaction to components in certain types of oil paints, which causes them to destabilise and flow after a period of time. However, Robarts, who was born in London and has lived in Kenya for over 40 years, has not had this experience with her other oil-on-wood paintings. And years later, the colours of Wanjiku remain vivid and unaffected by the leaching.

Stepping away from the technical questions, the morphing image draws your attention to deeper socio-economic issues in Kenya. 2007 will be remembered for a controversial general election that led to unprecedented postelection violence.

Then there is the status of women. While progress has been made in addressing gender inequality, many women and girls still face discrimination, violence, deep-rooted patriarchy, limited education and other disparities. Essentially, Wanjiku is reminder of what ails the Kenyan woman. Robarts concludes, 'Perhaps the tears of Wanjiku will never stop until the plight of women can be made better.'

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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:May 12, 2018
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