Funny how life happens to the unsuspecting. For 26 years Linda Hooper dabbled as an art dealer for the well-heeled. She ran an internationally-known art gallery in California, The Manny Silverman Gallery, that specialised in abstract American art of the post World War II.
She sold art to people who easily forked over Sh100 million for a piece of painting. Then in 2005, she came to Kenya. In Samburu, she met women with children strapped on their backs who walked for kilometres in the punishing heat. Then something shifted. It stayed with her.
Soon after she became a volunteer for The Samburu Project, an NGO that provides access to clean water for the people of Samburu through drilling initiatives. The gallery wound up and over time she became a board member, chair, and now the executive director since 2016.
She met with JACKSON BIKO at the Hob House for a lovely breakfast.
Is there anything in your childhood that might have indicated that you might end up in Africa today, doing what you do?
That’s an amazing question. Well, I was raised by a single mom. I was born in Pennsylvania but we moved to California. I was the first person in my family to go to university. My mother was a very curious person, she loved to travel. She was even more curious about Africa than I was.
Her curiosity about the world was something that resonated with me. Art history is a window into the world. You learn about geography, politics, and religion. In 2005 I had an opportunity to come to Kenya for a month and was struck by how beautiful it was. I was in love.
How has what you are doing here shaped you as a person?
I have learned to embrace the ability to pivot, read the landscape, and figure out how you’re going to get things done. It might not be on your plan, but it will happen. The ability to improvise, to see the possibilities instead of the challenges.
I am grateful to have that positive outlook. I mean, the Kenyans in Samburu are living well under the poverty line yet never complain about anything. My wealthy clients in Beverly Hills on the other hand complain all the time about everything.
Talking of challenges, what’s been the most difficult thing you have ever had to do?
I know how to use Excel spreadsheets. [Laughs] In my former life in art, I would take a million-dollar painting to someone’s house and explain to them why it’s relevant. I had never had to use Word or Excel spreadsheets or a Google document.
I only had to know about art history, about the painting that I was trying to sell and build relationships with collectors and museums. In my first year at The Samburu Project, I had to learn how to use Excel and all that stuff. I didn’t go to school for that and just a zillion things around running an NGO like this. So 2016 was tough.
What is it that makes somebody want to buy very expensive art and hang it in their house?
I think it’s an intellectual pursuit. That you study art history and you know there was a group of artists that lived in Paris from, for instance, think of Picasso. He lived in Paris from 1900 to 1925. There are paintings that he made in these three years that speak to your heart and you want to have one.
You’ll chase it until you get one without caring how much money it costs you. You just have to have that thing. It gets under your skin. It’s a challenge and a pursuit for art collectors.
What’s the most common question people in the west ask you about Africa?
Most people ask “Aren’t you afraid?” The truth is that I’m never afraid when I’m here. I’m afraid when I’m in Los Angeles and people are allowed to have guns. I don’t want to pretend as if nothing bad happens in Africa. Bad things can happen anywhere, and there are bad people anywhere.
What’s your absolute truth in life?
My God, you’re asking hard questions! [Chuckles] Can I think about that some more?
Do you believe that you’re destined to come and work in Northern Kenya?
Yes, 100 percent because otherwise, this would not be my path. Life or God or whatever you believe in gave me this path. I’ll tell you an amazing story.
In 2017 I met a group of military guys in a lodge I was staying in. I started chatting with one of them to find out what they were doing up there. He said he was part of a squad that was teaching British soldiers how to detonate landmines. We exchanged business cards, and I proceeded to a women’s empowerment workshop out in the middle of nowhere.
So, I’m out there waiting for all members of my team to show up, when one of them called and said that on the way to the workshop he had stopped at one of our wells and discovered a bomb. I was shocked. He didn’t know what to do. Then it struck me that I had just met a person I could call. So I called him on phone, explained the situation and sent him a photo of it like he requested.
He said that it was really dangerous and we shouldn’t let anyone near it. He sent someone there and in about two hours later we heard it go off. I mean, come on! Destiny! And we’ve never found one of those again.
Tell me another whacky story.[Laughs] Some years ago, I was getting dressed for work, and as I sit down on a little dressing table near the bathroom, something catches my attention out of the corner of my eye. I look, and there is a thing that looks like a bat In my house. It’s humongous. It’s like this big [ shows with hands] and its wings are open. I am freaking out.
So I get up and run out of my highrise apartment in only my towel. I’m looking around, but there is nobody around. So I go back in tiptoeing and that thing is still there. I call my mom by mistake and tell her about this bat-looking thing in my bathroom and say never mind and I call [inaudible] and I tell him to come and deal with the big thing in my bathroom. Ten minutes later he comes, wraps it in a towel, and throws it out the window.
I finish dressing and head to work. My mother later calls me saying she read in the newspaper that giant black moths from Mexico have found their way into California. She faxes me the story and sure enough, the bat-looking thing in my house is in that newspaper and is called the Mexican moth of death.
There’s some belief in Mexico that if that thing comes into your house you’re going to die. So I’m like holy Hanna! It was so weird! Years later I am in Paris at this very very famous place that has all sorts of preserved animals and things.
They have a whole room of bugs. And just (chuckling) for luck, I say to the guy running the place, “do you happen to have a Mexican moth of death?” He replies “no, do you have one? Are you like a moth collector or something?” I tell him I had one in my house once to which he said, (gasps) “you should have saved it, they’re worth so much money. You’re so lucky that it came into your house.” [Makes a shocked face]