Press Release: Adama Diawara, Cote D’lvoire’s Consul-General in Kenya and Proprietor of Nairobi’s Gallery Watatu Passes On
ADAMA DIAWARA proprietor of Nairobi’s Gallery Watatu and Cote d’Ivoire’s Consul-General in Kenya, has gone to rendez-vous with his ancestors who will escort him to “them Pearly Gates” - as Old Satch Louis Amstrong used to put it. The big Baobab in the centre of the village has fallen indeed.
Adama Diawara Proprietor of Nairobi’s Gallery Watatu and Cote d’Ivoire’s Consul-General
Diawara died on Monday evening at the Aga Khan Hospital after a short battle with ill health. He was 80. Diawara never fully recovered his old robust self following a light stroke a few years back. But he remained high spirited, wily and wiry to the end.
On Monday morning, I’d gone to see him at the Aga Khan, to say au revoir, for I was to fly out that evening to Geneva. My greeting of “Bonjour, mon grand frère!” didn’t elicit the usual hearty “Bonjour, mon petit frère! (I called him “my big brother.” He called me his “little brother”). I clutched his hand, telling him I’d see him in a couple of weeks. He stared intently into my face as if he wanted to say something but he couldn’t speak. His clasp was limp, lacking the usual bone crushing grip, just like many he-men are wont to do to show off in greeting!
As I got up to leave his clasp gave a fleeting firm grip. His eyes bore into me, insistent. It dawned on me he was saying goodbye. I understood. I went straight to Kenya Airways and cancelled my flight and went to the gallery.
At around 6pm I got a call from Diawara’s last wife, Mama Hawa, who was keeping vigil at the Aga Khan. “Kofi, where are? Come immediately!” It was an order. The old geezer left on his last journey half an hour after I got to the Aga Khan.
Diawara was one of those characters you met in the pages of a novel. Totally larger than life. Picture a little boy from a hamlet in northern Cote d’Ivoire, who never went to school, never learnt to read or write, who left home at 16 for the bright lights of the capital, Abidjan. By 18 he was married, with the first of several wives, sired the first of his many offspring, made his first million by 30, wheeling and dealing in West African ethnic artifacts in the streets of Paris, Zurich, New York, and San Francisco.
It was in San Francisco that he met his last but one wife, Ruth Schaffner, a German born American socialite and gallery owner who knew Peggy Guggenheim, Picasso, Man Ray, Dali, and who had a “liaison dangereuse” with Max Ernst, co-founder of the Dada-Surrealist movement and, at the time, Peggy Guggenheim’s husband.
In his sixties Diawara was personally appointed by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny as Cote d’Ivoire’s Consul-General in Kenya, analphabete or not. Abidjan has never had an embassy in Kenya so, in fact, Diawara has been the West African state’s only diplomatic representative here.
Four years ago President Laurent Gbagbo called Diawara home and conferred on him Cote d’Ivoire’s highest civilian order at a glittering ceremony in Abidjan. He was booked into a suite in the 5-star Hotel Ivoire and was pressed by the head of state to stay “a whole month and rest”. But after only a few days in the sumptuous surroundings Diawara packed and returned to Nairobi. That’s how he loved Kenya.
Kenya and Africa in general owe a great debt to Diawara and Mama Ruth for giving us Gallery Watatu. Although started by Yoni Waite and her two musketeers David Hart and Robin Anderson, it was Adama and Ruth who took Gallery Watatu to the heights we see today. Last year as the debts piled up from this difficult business of keeping open a top notch modern art gallery in an African environment that hardly buys serious art, Diawara sold his beautiful villa in Peponi Close overlooking the Karura Forest, moved into a modest apartment in Westlands in order to use part of the sale cash to give Watatu a new lease on life.
Adama Diawara has gone on a journey of no return. May his fighting spirit strengthen his extended family members and the entire art fraternity of East Africa.
Osei G Kofi, MD Gallery Watatu