A look in the mirror with the simple things right

Friday December 18 2015

Left, Map of Rhodia Mann; Map of the Lamu teacher; and right, The Silent Room. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

Left, Map of Rhodia Mann; Map of the Lamu teacher; and right, The Silent Room. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

Do the simple things, we are told.

So if as an artist you want to question the meaning of life, do not stand at the easel scratching your head with a paintbrush.

Just ask.

And that is exactly what Xavier Verhoest and Wambui Kamiru decided to do when they wanted to know what it was to be Kenyan.

The result can be seen in an exhibition called Who I Am, Who We Are, that mixes paintings, photographs, films, recorded recollections and interviews to present a tapestry of national, ethnic and social identity.

The material was gathered from 2013-15 in various parts of the country and although glimpses of the artists’ labours have been seen previously — particularly the 18 life size paintings called Body Maps, at that time centred on the experiences of people with HIV/Aids — this is the first complete show of the Who I Am project, on now at the National Museum of Kenya main galleries off Museum Hill, Nairobi.

Over years of Verhoest’s strivings these body maps have become familiar to us.

Once explorations, now conclusions, each is the lifesize outline of a figure (drawn around the subject as he or she lies on a canvas, palms and soles carefully printed) then coloured and filled with symbols and words that have meaning in the person’s life.

Thus they encapsulate the subjects’ experiences, hopes and fears.

The naïve sweep of these body maps gives them an instant appeal.

Simple, bold and bright they are like catchy tunes that attract with their apparent melodic simplicity… yet each contains hooks — at times cheerful, often dark — that reward close study. Interpretation is helped by lengthy explanations by the subjects themselves set alongside each map.

So we learn that the granddaughter of SG Amin, the Kenyan Independence politician whose ethnicity would usually be described as Kenyan Asian, feels: “I do not want to be called a Kenyan Indian or for it to be said that I am not an indigenous Kenyan.”

The lady clearly found the experience of mapping to be liberating for she calls her map, Arise Oh Phoenix.

Then a retired teacher from Lamu states: “Without patriotism, one should not be called a citizen of a country. Because of this I am Kenyan similar to other Kenyans.”

Professional artists and designers among the subjects tended to slant their bodies across the canvas, as opposed to the mainly rigid, upright stances of the others.

One such subject is the jewellery maker Rhodia Mann, who has devoted much of her life to studying and radiating Samburu culture. (Subjects are supposed to be anonymous, but if even I can work out who she is from her autobiography alongside…)

Ms Mann, a white Kenyan in her 70s, displays an alarming sense of alienation in spite of being born here after her parents migrated from Eastern Europe.

Her map is called Second Class and she has painted that as an official stamp across her body. “That title says it all,” she states. Oh dear.

And to take one more example, there is the painter Shabu Mwangi, a rising star of the regional scene who runs an arts programme in Nairobi’s Mukuru Lunga Lunga slum. Again, a slanted pose on a map called Lost in Transition.

He states, “If I see you I should see myself,” and adds, “We are part of politics. If something is wrong with politics, then there is something wrong with our thinking.”

At the end of the hall is the Quiet Room, a circular tin hut set up in the museum as previously it has stood in Nairobi, Kisumu and Isiolo among the many places it toured.

In it the public was invited to sit before a microphone and answer a set of questions — How are you different to other Kenyans? What makes you proud to be Kenyan? What does it mean to be Kenyan? — and by so doing reflect upon who they are and reveal little parts of themselves that would usually stay hidden. A 48-minute sound track plays back previous responses.

Further still, in a corner, is a TV playing a loop of filmed reminiscences of Kenyans who also took part in the project.

This is a huge gallery and its space has been exploited fully by Kamiru and Verhoest.

The walls are painted matt black and the windows have been blacked out too, providing intimacy of engagement that this show’s content demands.

School heads should insist on taking their pupils around it — and you should get there any way you can. It runs until the end of February so there is plenty of time to plan.

For this is an excellent show, relevant to every visitor and with lessons for us all both on the surface and buried deep.

It is colourful, sharp, imaginative, exciting and provocative.

It offers entertainment and enlightenment for people of all ages, from all social strata, of all ethnicities, of all nationalities even.

Here Kamira, Verhoest and the NMK get it right by paying attention to the simple things.

And it is the simple things that matter most.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi.