From city slums to the global stage

Thursday June 02 2022

Artists Ngugi Waweru, Shabu Mwangi, Freshia Njeri and Kimathi Kaaria. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


For more than 15 years, the Wajukuu Collective of Kenyan artists has used their creativity to empower the youth in underprivileged communities, speak out on injustices and “transmute suffering into beauty.”

Soon they will take their message globally when they participate in the Documenta 15 art fair in Kassel, Germany from June to September 2022.

One of the most significant international art events, Documenta occurs every five years and features contemporary art from around the world.

“Wajukuu was invited since we share with the community and because of our resilience to stay in the community,” said visual artist Josephat Kamathi Kaaria. “Each artist does his or her work independently but we are still together with the community.”

Ahead of Documenta 15, Wajukuu Collective held an installation exhibition at Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery in April, giving local arts lovers a snippet of what to expect in Germany.

Titled Systems to Emptiness, the four members of Wajukuu presented three-dimensional works that review modern-day eradication of cultural heritage and identity that leaves a society ‘rootless and without an understanding of who we are or where we come from’, said the installation statement.


Kaaria and Freshia Njeri are behind the piece called Wakija Kwetu Watatujua (When they visit our pace, they will know us). The two constructed a tunnelled entryway at the door of the gallery covered in black cloth and placed under a makuti fibre roof. Inside were the sounds of street life in the Lunga-Lunga area of Nairobi’s Mukuru slum where Wajukuu are based.

Everyday noises

It was disconcerting at first to be inside a darkened space hearing the sounds of car horns, people talking, radios playing, welding and more.

“The sounds were recorded around our community and are basically the normal noises you hear each day,” explained Kaaria.

The tunnel in Documenta will be a much longer structure, said Njeri, and is intended to invite outsiders into their world and home.

“Darkness can bring confusion; you don’t know what awaits you until you come in,” she explained.

In Kassel they will transform their allocated space into a ghetto. “We want people to feel how it is to be in an informal settlement,” said Wajukuu founder artist Shabu Mwangi.

His installation piece, called Wrapped Reality/Self, is a human-like sculpture crafted from a tree trunk, a sisal cage above its head and a tangle of barbed wire at its base. Through it he questions, “the different systems within our society, the formality of our education and how the have-nots really struggle to have their voice heard.”

Mwangi has lived in low-income neighbourhoods most of his life and continually examines the effects of marginalisation, inequality and historical violence on people and individuals. He said, “It is my role as an artist to give the have-nots a voice and I never experience fear when voicing what I feel. The only time I feel fear is when I can’t speak.”

For painter Ngugi Waweru, this is his first attempt at an installation. His piece is an upright structure of bicycle chains standing in a pile of dirt enclosed by dozens of sharpened knives. He has named this captivating piece, "Kahiu Kogi Gatemaga o Mwene", from a proverb meaning the sharp knife only cuts its owner.

The Wajukuu project was established in 2004 by a group of artists whose goal was to impact the underprivileged community where they live. Their artworks frequently highlight socio-political matters, historical issues and the disparities between the rich and poor.

Now Wajukuu has the opportunity to impact a global audience through Documenta.

Said Mwangi, “I believe western society influences a lot of what we consume as a continent. Taking it to their doorstep is one way to show we have a voice.”