In Tanzania we met a young woman artist whose vision, determination and skill has made her a role model for women artists in Africa.
Riziki Kateya is a pioneer amongst women in East Africa. Repeatedly told by friends that painting is "men's work", she has pursued her childhood dream to make fine art central to her life. She is now a prolific botanical artist producing exquisite paintings and drawings of Tanzania's endemic flora. One of her passions is to integrate art, science and conservation to ensure the preservation of her country's natural heritage. Another is to expand the horizons of art in Tanzania and encourage more women to enter the field.
Born in 1982, Riziki recalls the pleasure and the frustration of her schooldays. She loved geography, history and biology because they involved drawing: indeed the teacher recognised her talent and would ask her to draw on the blackboard for the rest of the class to copy.
In break times, she was plied with requests from friends to draw the maps set as homework, something she enjoyed and which earnt her plenty of pocket-money! But she struggled with having to constrain her art to these moments. Once home she would find her father (an art teacher) and sit with him in the studio watching him paint.
Riziki's father has been a constant source of inspiration and support in a world that considered art to be a male domain. When she was just sixteen, he included some of her paintings in his own weekend exhibitions. It was here that Professor Elias Jengo from the Bagamoyo College of Art noticed her work, sat her down and asked "Are you really serious about your art?" Her positive response resulted in an interview at the college.
Riziki won a bursary to study botanical art in London
For two grueling weeks, 180 interviewees were examined in every medium from dance to ceramics, stage technology to design, and Riziki was one of the 18 students selected. During her three year diploma Riziki discovered a love for music and dance alongside painting and drawing. But it was her father who encouraged her to major in fine art. "I remember him saying that performing arts can be seasonal, but fine art travels within us and can work anywhere and anytime".
"I remember meeting my teacher on the first day at Kew Gardens. She showed me some pictures on the wall and I remarked 'My, you guys are really good with computers here'. 'No' she replied 'this is all handwork.'" Riziki recalls her embarrassment, and the warning from her fellow students that their teacher had high expectations and rarely gave praise. She soon discovered the precise, technical nature of botanical illustration. "We were taught to measure every leaf, stem and flower with a proportional instrument, and even stare down the microscope to examine the tiny stamens and seeds. On my first day the teacher asked me to choose a plant from the greenhouse. I chose a Streptocarpus species native to Tanzania with long hairy leaves and a purple flower, started painting and hoped to complete it in a few days. I had no idea how patient I had to be! Two and a half months later, I finally finished it - and the teacher said 'well done'. We were all amazed!"
Riziki returned to Tanzania with skills in botanical art, and was quickly recruited by Colin as he launched the Saintpaulia Project to document endemic rare flora. Because his vision was to build skills and employability amongst young Tanzanians, Colin recruited and mentored a team of local illustrators and photographers.
"We would head off into the bush in search of particular plants, and camp there for many weeks making sure we had a good record so that we could produce maps and field guides". It was in the bush that Riziki realised that she thrived on combining art, science and care for the environment. "I knew that I had a role to play in conservation. Once I'd completed the species identified by the project I would hike up into the mountains to search for other endemic species endangered by climate change".
Riziki is highly regarded for her botanical illustrations
Riziki is an artist in residence at Gibb's Farm in northern Tanzania, near the Ngorogoro Crater. There she paints herbs, vegetables and flowers from the farm's large organic garden, plus species growing in the forest flanking the crater. She enjoys the encouragement and stimulation she finds in being part of a community of artists. Her work is hung in the comfortable guest cottages. She continues to work with the Saintpaulia Project in field sites across Tanzania.
Beyond her botanical painting, Riziki loves to work in abstract using a variety of media. Her desire is to expand her repertoire and to bolster the presence of women in visual art both within and beyond the field of botanical illustration. "I want to challenge the stereotype and say 'you can' to those who think they cannot".
Being part of a community at Gibb's Farm and the Saintpaulia Project have shaped Riziki's vision for the future. "I want to set up my studio so that I can invite new and established artists. We would all have the physical space, the time and could give each other the support needed to make fine art a viable career." Her message to Tanzanian women is very clear: "If you think that art is within you, give it a try. The times when art was just for men are over."
Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 20 Oct 2010
Location: East Africa | Tanzania
Themes: the arts, natural world | art, flora