By Abdi Ali
Published June 8, 2017
What comes to mind when someone mentions ‘Nairobi’? Do you see Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Times Tower or lions from Nairobi National Park lying on Lang’ata Road and blocking peak hour traffic as giraffes lazily and leisurely graze in the streets? Or do you see labourers walking out of Mathare and Kibera slums on their way to seek work in industrial area as noisy matatus spew poisonous smoky fumes in the air as they dash travellers to and from their various errands in town?
Well, an art exhibition that looks at the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, as both an imagined and physical place, runs at Nairobi National Museum June 8-30, 2017.
The show, that is presented by British Institute in East Africa (BIEA), brings together a collection of artists and thinkers “to sense and make sense of Nairobi”: From the sprawling slums of Kibera to Karen’s white mischief, from Westland’s gleaming malls and obsequious bars to the contested dumpsites of Dandora, and from its new bypasses to the rusty engines of the railway yard.
BIEA says the Sensing Nairobi: Remains, Waste and Metonymy II exhibition “is about examining, touching, sensing the multiple, co-existent axis of time, substance and space along which Nairobi exists, moves, and constantly becomes. This becoming is multiple and contingent, and therefore it is relationally constituted and temporally situated. As a thing (or many things) as much as an idea (or many ideas), Nairobi is contingent upon our being in and with it every single second. We are all Nairobi.”
The artists–Elias Mung’ora, James Muriuki, Meshak Oiro, Annie Pfingst, Joost Fontein, Kevin Oduor, Neo Musangi, Ralf Graf, Constance Smith and Wambui Kamiru–tackling the subject Nairobi say they are “interested in capturing, reflecting and contributing to Nairobi’s multiple sensorial registers – smell, touch, taste, sound, texture, duration and ephemerality – as a way of critically engaging with the intersections of time, substance and space through which the city contingently emerges and becomes.”
Though this exhibition builds on an earlier one titled Remains, Waste and Metonymy I in 2015, it is similar to Nai Ni Who? (Who or What is Nairobi?) art festival of The GoDown Arts Centre that explored Nairobi, celebrating both the good, the bad and the possibilities available in this East Africa’s cosmopolitan city in 2013 and 2016.
The organisers of Remains, Waste and Metonymy II say they “seek to offer critical sensorial engagements with the temporal materialities and material temporalities from which [Nairobi] continuously yet contingently emerges. In shared intellectual endeavor, performance and production, our purpose is not only to reflect and refract the cities’ complex multiplicities but to take part in its disparate becomings and ephemeral coherences in order to stake a claim on city’s potentialities and alternate possibilities.”
BIEA stresses that exploring Nairobi must be “a sensorial material quest, metonymic as much as metaphorical, of touch, sight, sounds and smell more than meaning, symbols or representation.”