Image by: Musungu Okach

The Art of Mourning – A Kenyan Artist Wambui Collymore’s Story

A story of love, loss and grief

Kenyan artist Wambui Collymore takes us through the loneliness felt when we lose a loved one. Every piece of fabric, nail cutter, cologne and shoes makes time feel like it has stopped.

Art speaks its own language that some may find too emotional, intricate and bordering the uncomfortable. But it is through art that we find the voice to explain the chilling fear, loneliness and sadness that engulfs one in the loss of a loved one.

In literature, Margaret Ogola in her Magnus opus book, ‘The River And The Source’ pens down an emotive poem recited by Akoko at the loss of her husband Owour Kembo. Among the Luhya, Maragoli to be precise there is a poem titled ‘Keverenge’ in which the persona mourns her dead husband. In this poem, the persona adorns the late husband’s clothes and uses his walking stick to walk in the ‘footsteps’ of her late husband before his demise.

Bob Collymore’s work shirts arranged as they would be in the closet | Image by: Musungu Okach

It is this footsteps the Kenyan installation artist Wambui Collymore chose to tread in her latest installation ‘All My Venus Days’ Not that Wambui re-rendered the Maragoli dirge but she forged her own path and tread through her own grief in the medium she was most comfortable with-installation art.

Naturally, one would show grief when the wound is still fresh and the memory of death still lingers in people’s mind. But not Wambu, her processing grief is a journey that takes time, and the wound is ever fresh as long as she lives.

Her latest installation, All My Venus Days’ debuted at Tira Studios in February 2022. The installation comprises more than three years of work in a variety of medium. Married to the late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore in 2014, Wambui had several years of bliss before her husband was struck by acute myeloid leukaemia.

While tending to her sick husband, Wambui begun to build an array of memories they would share when he gets well. She would take images of the hospital window view in London as seasons changed from winter to some with unfettered optimism. But this images will never be the images to remind them about their past difficult times. They will become the last images Bob saw before his demise and a collection of the latest exhibition.

Tira Studios along Ngong road was not an easy place to find. Nevertheless, after getting the hang of the numerous workshops that parade the street, the unmistakable Tira stare at you from its position like Kit Mikai.

A person looks at video installation | Image by: Musungu Okach

Inside the studio, black oozes out of the walls and into the white veils that dance in the breeze as if a ghost is passing by. There is a serene atmosphere in the studio that makes it spiritual like a shrine yet philosophical. The hushed silence rudely interrupted by snippets of conversation, the speeding of cars along Ngong road and the occasional tunes of birds in the nearby trees makes the studio a little bit sanctimonious.

Conspicuously missing from the collection in the studio are the photos of Bob. Wambui says that she did not see the need to include his images for the exhibition was about the little things. In this iteration, the viewer was entering the world of Bob, seeing things they way he left them. “Home is where his clothes are” are photos taken a week after Bob’s demise and freezes the moment on paper. It is like the last thing that Bob saw before embarking on the journey of no return.

As one meanders through the studio, one notices that sometimes the language the doctors speak and that of music can merge into a ‘Foreign Script” to a person who does not understand either of the two. The music of prescription rendered on paper sings the song of hope and so is the music of the saxophone Bob enjoyed played. A patron of the arts, Bob made Jazz fanbase grow in Kenya with the annual Safaricom Jazz Festival that welcomed both jazz aficionados and novices to enjoy a choice of local and international acts. In his spare time he would pen some of his lyrics than now embeds the walls of Tira Studios well carved onto the prescription papers.

As it were, Wambui chose to mourn and also let us enter her world with Bob. From the poetry embroidered on Bob’s white work shirts to glass bottles containing utilities like tweezers and a whiff of Bob’s cologne we see a journey of pain and acceptance. We also comprehend the value of the little things and how material things like clothes and other objects could be the lasting memory as opposed to the facial images we post on walls.

The journey of mourning is well understood by the memories of things that we do, as can be seen in the silent videos that play in the studio and the memories that we see. One of the two silent videos speak volumes of silence as Wambui craftily embroiders her poetry on Bob’s shirts and the power of sewing the lyrical emotion a stitch a time as an elegy takes form. The other video is of happy optimism. Photos taken in hospital with the hope of a reminder of the gory past had Bob fought the leukemia.

It is selfish to share ones journey without getting to feel the pain of others as well. It is for this reason that, towards the edge of the studio, surrounded by a white veil is the ‘Veil of Grief’ with a pen a paper and an envelope for people to share their own experiences. The veil of grief is a personal space secluded from the rest making it safe to share your own grief and hang it on the surrounding net. It is such an emotional thing that we all come together through a pen and paper to share our own point of view on grief.

The Veil of Grief I Image by: Musungu Okach

Wambui is a Kenyan artist with background in history and holds a MSc. in African Studies with focus on Violence, History and Memory from the University of Oxford.

Originally a painter, Wambui moved into installation art where she expresses her work on the themes of decoloniality, identity and independence in Africa. She has a deep sense of ingenuity and a philosophical mind that not only creates three dimensional art around issues but also engages the mind in more than one dimension. Her works invoke, intrigue and question the different perspectives we have formed over time.

Wambui’s previous works are ‘Wakariru’ (2019), ‘Akili Ni Nywele’ (2017 and 2021), ‘Who I Am, Who We Are’ and ‘Your Name Betrays You’ (2015)

All Images by Musungu Okach

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