Artist Tabitha Wa Thuku grew up moving between Gatundu, Kiambu and Ndondori in Nyandarwa, surrounded in turn by the rich biodiversity of indigenous forests and the lush green of coffee plantations. Having left that environment many years ago, you can see that deep roots into the land still suffuse her work today.

Flowers in the Desert 2021 – Mixed media 

Wa Thuku has been a practising artist for over 3 decades. Born in 1963, Wa Thuku emerged as a significant figure in the Kenyan art scene, starting her career as a self-taught artist. She thanks her late father for encouraging her childhood experiments with creating. As a carpentry worker in the coffee plantations, he allowed her to use the tools in his workshop to make pieces of her own. 

Wa Thuku continued her pioneering work as one of the only female artists of her generation in the Kenyan art world. When she first approached Gallery Watatu, [the preeminent art gallery of Nairobi from the 1970s to early 2000s] she was keenly aware of the lack of presence of women who were represented there. Though she may have been daunted, Wa Thuku persisted in her endeavour. She has, over the decades of her career, developed her own painterly language. 

Backstitch 2022 – Mixed media on canva

While her work has varied over the years, it has been tied together by a feeling of brooding depth and richness, punctuated with hits of vibrant colour, as well as imagery predominantly drawn from nature, creating contemplative spaces on the canvas with heavy impasto brushstrokes. The variations have been parsed into “seasons” in this current show, which correspond chronologically to places that Wa Thuku has lived.

iN caught up with Wa Thuku to delve further into her artistic process and discussed the theme of seasons and the unconscious influence of her surrounding  environment on her work:

I enter and exit the seasons without realising…

Red season is like during skirmishes, I was seeking for love. Green season was in Westlands, under shadows of trees and the voices of Kinangop, the food basket. Brownish seasons are normally full of people’s behaviour, which is also my general season and I find myself switching on and off into browns. It’s also my  golden spot, it is where I started many years ago.

Escaping Nude 2010 – Mixed media on canvas

This is what I can say. You know, sometimes, when you are in art, the influence of the space comes directly. It’s not even something that is completely known; it’s just like you’re inhaling that area. So that is exactly what happens when I am creating. I’m directly affected without actually noticing it. Like in Kitengela [where Wa Thuku is currently based], the sky is touching the ground; the light is too much. 

Horizon Trio 2024 – Mixed media on canvas


It’s like the way you say that you want to dive somewhere, so let’s grab some air inside me and dive now.

This comes directly from that space I’m in, the environment…Maybe I feel in my body, not in my mind. I work with nature and the package of nature, anything of life, people… because people get into and filter themselves into the nature. So that is why my theme is quite wide. If, for example, on a certain morning, I wake up with a feeling of a landscape, probably inspired by the dust. Here the dust comes like a crowd. And then all of a sudden I have a neighbour who has come to ask me whether I have sukuma wiki… so I get affected by the people, the people, the animals, anything.

Q: From your perspective as the artist, do you see a big difference between your early works and your current works?

Sometimes I feel there is some big difference, because my early work is so textured, yes and my present works, even if maybe they have some texture, it is very minimal. And I think I, as I grow older, I want to become lighter. The texture of the work required a lot of energy, a lot of energy, putting the texture, trimming them, returning, you know, but I am realising that I don’t have the muscles, my current work has less muscles.

Laureate’s Anger 2010 – Mixed media on canvas 

You know, I want to return the forest onto the canvas, like planting a seed on that kind of vast space. Forests usually grow naturally. You don’t arrange them. So I also try to do the same on my canvas; I just want to be like the forest where a seed has fallen. It just grows.

Q: Did you have an influences you looked to in your early practice as an artist?

“My soul does not allow me to speak somebody else’s language directly on my canvas, because that is somebody else’s mind.. so I give what is coming inside me, and because I have enough of that, I have never, ever found any need of exploiting somebody else’s picture. In the course of time as an artist, there are workshops that I have gone to, just to learn a few things, like techniques, you know, like the mixing of the colour and such”

Wa Thuku tells me that making art can be like riding a bicycle on a stony road: 

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“That’s the same thing in my art. So I continue without noticing that there are so many challenges; there are so many, you know, those minutes that you get disturbed by a noise, and you move outside, you realize that something happened, that your goat has run to somebody’s farm. So I run after the goat. So when I come back, there is a challenge to capture that inspiration [that was there before].

Because I believe that every painting is an inspiration, like every person is a child of time.

I don’t know how I can explain this moment when I am painting and my soul’s inspiration has drained itself, and I feel tired and I fall asleep. I sleep for some minutes, and then I wake up suddenly, and I go back to the painting.


An Endless Beginner 2024 – Mixed Media on Canvas

Q: So you feel like you need that to finish processing that painting, to gain clarity on the piece you are working on?

Yes, I do. I do. It’s like, like when people are taking a walk on the street, and they are walking, walking, and they all go tired, and then you want to refresh. And then, after all, then you feel the strength to continue to the next few kilometres.

Q: Do you purposely work in themes? For example, you have bodies of work that seem focused on landscapes, others are more figurative…

No – I’ve never had that, but I have that feeling that doesn’t have a form. Feelings don’t have form. Like you said, this is the role of the feeling. I think the feeling then is the inspiration. I cannot explain where I started, but I always know when a painting is telling me I’m done.

There also comes a time when I completely take a break of, like, a month. I make a lot of noise because I have been emptied and you can’t conceive immediately after giving birth. So after that season of creating, you know, let’s call it a season within the seasons, as we said, I get completely empty and I can’t…completely, completely I can’t create. Until my soul and my body again germinate that seed.


 “Seasons Within a Season”, Tabitha Wa Thuko’s current exhibition, is on show at Circle Art Gallery, Riara Rd. until 20 July.