Reliving Kenyan life before 1963 through a bar scene

Friday September 13 2013

An experimental installation art exhibition of a Kenyan bar in the 1950s by artist Wambui Kamiru at Kuona Trust in Nairobi. The exhibition ends on September 21, 2013

An experimental installation art exhibition of a Kenyan bar in the 1950s by artist Wambui Kamiru at Kuona Trust in Nairobi. The exhibition ends on September 21, 2013. Photo/FILE 

This year, Kenya is celebrating 50 years of independence. Not many Kenyans alive today have a recollection of life in the country before independence in 1963.

Kuona Trust, off Dennis Pritt Road in Nairobi, was a buzz of activity on the evening of September 5. It was the opening night of an experimental installation dubbed ‘Harambee 63’ by Wambui Kamiru.

In installation art, an artist displays works that require the audience to interact with the art. It may not be very popular in Kenya yet, but it is certainly one of the ways in which artists express themselves and involve the audience.

The feedback, both positive and negative, helps the artist figure out if they have communicated their message, and in some instances, new and varied interpretations spring up.

This particular installation is set in a local bar, probably in the 1940s or 1950s. The bar is called ‘Kwa Njeri Bar and Butchery,’ the furniture is old, the light bulbs flicker pink, blue, green and yellow, the place definitely smells of beer, giving the installation more than a tactile experience.

Behind the bar area, which is painted in pastel blue, there are machetes, or pangas, that have been well-kept but visible. In between two benches are a set of 66 pairs of gumboots neatly arranged in four lines. When I look closely, I notice that each boot has a ribbon of masala cloth in either red or black or both.

On the side of each boot is a picture of different but notable people in history like Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, and Jomo Kenyatta.

There is a projector screen behind the bar that loops videos of speeches and interviews given by Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela and even Miriam Makeba. These videos are available on YouTube. Everything about this installation makes one curious about the subject.

I am curious to find out why gumboots? Why a bar? Especially one that has an old setting. Wambui is more than happy to explain.

“The bar was a place where revolutions were formed, it was at the bottom of the enemy’s suspicion. Everything from crude weaponry to information were collected here, it was a point of supply. It played a key role, especially in Africa, the same way cafés did in socialist countries.

“Gumboots were first worn in the battle of Waterloo, created by the Duke of Wellington. Here in Africa, ordinary gumboots have a history in war; guerilla soldiers wore them because of their capacity to be all weather, the faces on the boots represent ordinary people who changed the world.”

To her, this represents Kenyans as individuals and the fact that we all have that capacity as citizens to create a change in society even when we think we are just ordinary people. “The so-called revolutionaries were ordinary people who changed the world. It’s about whom we consider revolutionaries touching on Africa’s history,” she says.

FREEDOM STRUGGLE

Kenyan history is isolated, but was part of a larger movement, which reflected the struggle for independence around the world at that time. The installation, which is part of a year-long project, calls to question ideas we hold about our individual roles in times where bravery and action is required.

Wambui, who was born in Kenya, is passionate about history and art. She is a self-taught abstract artist . She started out from the time she was in high school at Loreto Convent Msongari. Her main themes are love, life, and politics, topics that she is deeply passionate about.

‘Harambee 63’ is her first installation. “I wanted full participation from my audience, having conversations about our shared history. It’s important to me that I bring the whole concept to life and my audiences have to be part of it.”

The conversations are also taking place on social media, #harambee63 and Harambee63 on Facebook.

Like many, she has walked a journey to get to where she is as an artist. She holds an MSc in African Studies with a focus on Kenyan history from Oxford University, United Kingdom.

Upon her return, she tried to look for a job as a lecturer in local institutions, but decided to follow her passion, art, through which she would like to communicate and tell her stories.

The installation runs until September 20, 2013 at Kuona Trust, Nairobi. She hopes that this installation will help many understand our history, especially on colonialism and post-colonialism.

Story by Irene Ouso