Metonymy? It’s just a load of rubbish...

Friday February 05 2016

A crocodile skull from the Crocs on the Rocks section of the show and, below, a fossil-hunter’s desk. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

For people like me who think erudite is a type of glue, a current exhibition may come as a bit of a shock.
It is called Remains, Waste and Metonymy.

Metonymy? That is something I vaguely remember from English lessons, a figure of speech in which the object being referred to is called by something else related to it; thus “Give them a hand”... “hand” for applause.

It was lumped together with that other old favourite synecdoche (where a part represents the whole — Barca, for Barcelona football club) and metaphor (a comparison between unrelated things to highlight their similarities — “low hanging fruit” for easily achievable targets).

They are all something to do with one thing standing in for another.

And it was fitting therefore that, when I went to see Remains, Waste and Metonymy, I soon dearly wished that someone else were standing in for me.

It is on at the National Museums of Kenya on Museum Hill, Nairobi, until February 19.


The museum service does not suffer from the need of private galleries to turn a profit, and can therefore indulge itself with a bit of cutting edge artiness from time to time.

And that can only be good. It becomes a venue for experiments, an opportunity for artists to let their hair down, and even for the outrageous, and we all need a bit of that from time to time.

But surely there remains some sort of imperative at least to be comprehensible to a person of average intelligence? And to help visitors by providing explanations in plain language that we can all grasp?

It really is not enough to flood a hall with the outpourings of some private obsession — in this case a multidisciplinary and international one involving nine artists and scholars — and expect people to go away feeling informed, excited and uplifted.
Or even just curious to find out more.

Instead I left feeling even more stupid than usual, unable to understand what was happening around me and how its parts related to each other, let alone to any audience.

The museum has started the New Year on a new low.

The artists and academics involved in this dismal collaboration, which is subtitled, “A critical intervention into art/scholarship”, were Miriam Syowia Kyambi, Sam Hopkins, Neo Sinoxolo Musangi, Annie Pfingst, Joost Fontein, Connie Smith, Sam Derbyshire, John Harries and Meshack Oiro… household names all, like Toss and Vim.

It is true that there were interesting things to see.

There was a collection of fossil crocodile skulls for instance, and some rather poor watercolours of them that, had they been better, could have come from a Victorian text book.

(If you want to see better just go to the next gallery and look at the paintings by Joy Adamson.)

There was a cabinet containing a microscope and what seemed to be a pathologist’s note about a female body found on Moi Avenue, Nairobi, in 1994, that had testes inside. What was that about? A comment on transgender life and death? I simply do not know.

There was also a nicely bound book written by the participating artists and scholars that contained photos of plaster casts of exhibits for a museum to be set up in Berlin, one of the features of which was to be that it should not exist. I kid you not.

Then there was a desk that may have belonged to a long dead fossil hunter, a table that was marked Crime Scene, some photos of microscope slides of a dreadlock and others of human skin, and three vitrines containing the remnants of a performance by Kyambi.

A bit like Ms Haversham’s bride cake, it was the ghost of a past event; or perhaps its earthly remains. There was the costume she wore, there were her shoes embedded in soil, there were snaps of the performance itself with the artist doing what my daughter used to call, as scathingly as only four-year-olds can, “showing off.”

The soil, by the way, mattered. A notice told us it “references a spiritual energy of connectedness.”

Connectedness? There were many other long words and profound seeming sentences to enjoy too.

To give this odd collection of grubby artefacts and scruffily presented exhibits a bit of status, several self- important notices were placed on the walls to explain things to dummies like me.

For example: “By approaching stuff as incomplete and emergent, Remains, Waste and Metonymy offers critical scrutiny to the assumed finality, stability and comfort of ‘objects’, ‘persons’ and ‘landscapes’.”

And again: “Evoking presence rather than offering meaning (more metonymic than metaphorical) this indeterminacy is creatively explored to reveal the excessive multiplicities of time, substance and space.”

So there, buried in this twaddle, we have it. Everything is in flux. Or possibly not.

Whatever any of it means, I have little doubt that with a snappy title like Remains, Waste and Metonymy, and a hall full of the meaning of leftovers, the museum directors will have alerted the Administration Police to ensure crowd control and maybe even put up a few crush barriers to protect visitors from the surging throng demanding entrance.

Yet strangely, on the day I went, I was the only person in the hall. Alone I wandered, lost and helpless in the face of such intellectual rigour.

Had someone stood in for me and had they been more emphatic than me, they may have had the courage to scream out loud that this exhibition was all about rubbish, was rubbish — and was self-indulgent and pretentious rubbish at that.

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