‘Sensing Nairobi’ artists give perspective to different faces of Nairobi

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After the successful ‘Remains, Waste and Metonymy 1’ in 2015/2016, the British Institute of East Africa (BIEA) showcased the second dubbed ‘Sensing Nairobi’ on 11th and 12th of February.

The exhibition narrowed down its focus to the sights, sounds and images of the city of Nairobi. The exhibition, which was held at multiple locations in the city, brought together not only arts but also community advancement that rips off from the arts.

Bringing together a collective of renowned artist and scholars who included Meshack Oiro, James Muriuki, Neo Musangi, Constance Smith, Elias Mung’ora, Anni Pfingst, Joost Fontein, Kevin Oduor, Ralf Graf and Wambui Kamiru Collymore, the exhibition opened up to the construction, destruction and the management of Nairobi infrastructure and the emerging trends that define the city. ‘Sensing Nairobi’ brought to life the popular imaginations that makes Nairobi exist as a series of clichés. The city exists on the platform of what has been set as historical truth despite the many changes that occur by day. “From the famous sprawling slums of Kibera to Karen’s ‘white’ mischief, from Westland’s gleaming malls and obsequious bars to contested dumpsites of Dandora” the list goes on, even as the dynamics change the perceptions remain the same. It is this kind of Nairobi that the artists chose to paint expressions around.

Wambui Kamiru’s installation ‘Akili ni Nywele’ questioned the emerging trends in ladies hairs and the now too common hair flipping. “I always question myself why I keep my hair long,” she said reflectively as she flipped her dreadlocks. The color pink, mostly associated with salon or beauty shops, the synthetic hair and the Cinderella dolls with blond hair, the girlie books and the TV commercials all hail the definition of beautiful hair as long hair. “I used to paint but realized that painting is too small for my ideas,” the Oxford graduate spoke of why she prefers installation as a way to represent her thoughts. Wambui who tackles issues on history, colonialism, politics, identity and independence has successfully run other installations like; ‘Who Am I’, a campaign about identity.

Neo Musangi in his installation would regale the audience with humanity’s obsession with phallic symbolism. His work mused on how people are obsessed with size and why we have herbalists claiming to intensify the penis size. A student of gender studies, Musangi confessed to have contacted some of the most common ‘doctors’ in Nairobi, he revealed that during his conversations with the ‘doctors’ he observed that the cost of increasing the penile size depends on where you are calling from. “For those in plush regions of Nairobi, size is a huge concern and therefore, high price,” his words met with a giggling and excited crowd.

Away from obsession with the human anatomy, James Muriuki would divert our thoughts as he brought to life the images and sounds of three different regions or levels of the murky River Nairobi. Muriuki, used video, audio installations and photos of water collected in different locations, with the aim of relating the sound to the amount of pollution however, the project took a slightly different twist, where the artist realized the filth that flows into the river could represent the different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs that is Nairobi.

Elias Mung’ora would unwittingly extend Muriuki’s argument but this time on canvas by looking at the marks on the wall of buildings, fences and gates that tell of age, passage of time, and thoughts which nostalgically reminds you of the dingy slums and the plush suburbs- the dents of life lived in happiness, anger and frustration. To continue the discussion Constance Smith, an anthropologist, in Remainders/Reminders observed the creative renovations and decorations done on Nairobi’s ancient colonial buildings with the current occupants. Annie Pfingst, would show a series of photos that map out emergency landscapes and geographies of resistance to British colonial rule.

Other artists led by Joost Fontein an anthropologist would look at the now blossoming infrastructure demolition business while RxAxLxF would lament the blatant and ruthless destruction of city cotton settlement near Wilson Airport in Nairobi in 2013. Out at the BIEA Gardens, lay renowned sculptor Kevin Oduor latest works made from fabric cast with molten resins. His incredible work graces the city of Nairobi with memory of Kenya’s freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi.

Sensing Nairobi exhibition brought to life the obvious and questioned the existence of things as dictated by society. It questioned the accepted norm and falsified it while speaking about identity and the re-establishment of who we are and how contented we should be

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