I must confess I was drawn to the Nairobi National Museum by an ill-tempered review in The EastAfrican a fortnight ago, whose view, quite simply, was that the recent exhibition Remains, Waste and Metonymy was too “intelligent,” and therefore nothing but “self-indulgent and pretentious rubbish.”
Such an assessment is — and I want to use this word seriously — stupid, as one’s limited or limiting view cannot become the prism through which we must see the world.
I was delighted to make out, not just the meaning of the exhibits assembled by a group of local and international scholars — curated by Neo Musangi and Joost Fontein — but also to establish how the artefacts were in conversation with each other, and issues in contemporary Kenya.
In broad strokes, the exhibition sought to illustrate the endless nature of things, and what remains when impacted upon by the elements; the stories that live on from every act, and the art that is produced in the process.
In her three exhibits, Constance Smith laid out clean, white sheets on the staircase for a day, and stored the footprints left by those who journeyed through the space.
One board had footprints that imitate tassels of human hair; another evokes a spider’s web and yet another imitates the bark of a tree.
Archeologist Sam Derbyshire’s exhibits are as striking as the anecdotes in his notes. He explains how in 1971 Norwegian aid agency Norad sought to develop fish farming around Lake Turkana. They spent $3 million in Kalakol, where a cold storage was built and a further $20 million to build a road network to connect the facility and the fishing bays. However, by the mid-1980s, the project had collapsed.
Derbyshire’s pictures of piles of tilapia and the Nile perch drying in the sun, beside the quiet hamlets where women and children sit in the shade, is a powerful commentary on the adaptability and the resilience of the locals, which contrasts with the rigidity of the donor project, now turned into a horrid waste.
But his images convey much more: The sun casts long shadows in the pictures and it is harsh enough to scorch and preserve the fish, yet gentle enough to sustain life. So how come this resource was not harnessed to dry the fish?
Annie Pfingst’s Emergency Landscapes and Geographies of Resistance, is a visual display of the transformation of land over the past 50 years.
Equally moving is Mandela Samuel’s film installation that re-imagines the various art forms that could emerge from a crocodile fossil.
This exhibition is truly a refreshing experience for those who want to challenge their presumptions on how they perceive art, and the life that produces it.
Dr Peter Kimani is a lecturer at the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications.