A shout for the slum

Friday February 10 2012

Lyrical, reflections by David Mbuthia, Pictures: Frank Whalley

Lyrical, reflections by David Mbuthia, Pictures: Frank Whalley 

The celebrated English artist David Hockney, while out sketching in East Yorkshire, noted how at first he deplored the activities of fly tippers who dumped rubbish amid the fields and hedgerows.

But then, he reflected, there was a strange beauty in the sight of a discarded fridge (the example he gave) lying in a ditch against a tangle of wildflowers and weeds. He found it an unexpected and stimulating image.

If Hockney were ever to visit Eastlands in Nairobi, he might well die of excitement. For there, unexpected and stimulating images are the order of the day.

If you ever doubted the industry that hallmarks East Africa’s slums, a visit to Grassroots Upgraded — on until mid-April at the Nairobi Gallery (the old PC’s Office) — is the perfect antidote.

Subtitled Reflections on Nairobi Eastlands it is an exhibition of some 90 photographs (selected from around 2,000 taken for the project) plus video shows and a cartoons installation, that sets out to challenge (in the organisers’ words) the “stereotype about life in the marginal areas of town” and it seeks to raise questions “…about how Nairobi is represented, the image the city has and how it can be shaped.”

The cameras used were from Lomo, inexpensive, sturdy and with fixed lenses. Using old fashioned film, and with the company’s motto “Don’t think, just shoot,” they have become something of a cult item. Like the old Kodak Box Brownie, they put photography into everyone’s hands.

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A better motto might have been “Cheap and cheerful.” True, there is a certain charm in the somewhat uncertain images they produce — colourful and frequently blurred — but judging by what we see here, it’s all very hit and miss. The fixed lenses also encourage an over-reliance on special effects… far too many fish-eye views, for example. I guess when you have bought such a camera you might as well use it whenever you can.

But the cameras can produce truly wonderful things, like the backlit photograph by Simon Gachugo at the entrance to the show — an abstract pattern of softly suffused black, red and yellow vertical bars.

Gachugo is one of 21 photographers represented, all members of the Slum TV arts collective from Mathare. Its main purpose is to document life for its residents and also to let outsiders know what’s happening.

It‘s a shout for the slum.

Much of the effect of this determinedly anarchic exhibition is achieved not just through the stills and videos (the one in which five jua kali craftsmen talked about their work offered enthralling insights) but through the tension created by the juxtaposition of subjects — urban and rural, business and pleasure, distant and close, repeated and abstracted forms, and so on.

Some of the subjects are genuinely surprising. Did you know for instance that Eastlands boasts a tiled swimming pool? It’s pictured, inside mabati walls.

But it is the repeated forms that produce some of the most incisive images. In one gallery devoted to industry, the repetition of the work process is echoed in segments that accumulate energy.

For me, the most striking picture in the exhibition was David Mbuthia’s wall sized print of a flooded patch of land — a source of life, which nourishes the surrounding detritus of cars, buckets and old cans. In the background an apartment block is under construction, a symbol of development echoed by two electricity poles next to a group of trees. The image is reflected in the pool, giving a picture that is both lyrical and telling.

Was this really taken with a Lomo? If so it is doubly astonishing.

Does Grassroots Upgraded succeed in its central billing of offering a fresh view missed by most photojournalists, who prefer to focus, we are told, on stereotypical thin men, burdened women and starving children — an opinion that has itself become a stereotype?

I think not.

Mainstream photographers like Joan Pereruan, Liz Muthoni, Anthony Kaminju and Boniface Mwangi have made equally revelatory and quirky pictures. From memory their work has been shown at this very gallery and at the Goethe Institute (one of this show’s sponsors) and Alliance Francaise, too.

But certainly Grassroots Upgraded is interesting in that it has been produced by people who actually live in the slum… and it scores heavily with its juxtaposition of opposites.

It is an exciting and dynamic exhibition with pictures that almost vibrate with energy.

It is also an exhibition I would like to recommend unreservedly... but unfortunately I do have one reservation. And it is this: The way the photographers’ credits are shown. For some reason they have been placed on little picture cards just above the skirting boards of each room. To find out who had taken the photographs, I had to drop to the floor on my hands and knees to read them.

No doubt self-effacing, unobtrusive and possibly even amusing —ideal perhaps for Snow White’s little helpers — but for the average visitor, discourteous and just plain silly.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]