- The dark, black-draped hallway, tuned to the sounds of urban street life, was meant to be an immersive experience.
- The center is what Ngugi and Shabu Mwangi founded years ago to open up a creative space where budding artists and children could come to learn art and express themselves.
Wajukuu’s “Systems to Emptiness” transformed the Circle Art Gallery into a giant installation when the show opened last Wednesday night in Nairobi.
The dark, black-draped hallway, tuned to the sounds of urban street life, was meant to be an immersive experience.
“The idea was to make people feel like they are entering our world in Wajukuu,” says Ngugi Waweru, referring to their art center based in Nairobi’s Mukuru Lunga Lunga informal settlement.
The center is what Ngugi and Shabu Mwangi founded years ago to open up a creative space where budding artists and children could come to learn art and express themselves.
Fortunately, once you have passed through this narrow tunnel, you have arrived safely inside the gallery where two sculpted installations are by Ngugi and Shabu Mwangi, the two Wajukuu artists behind the exhibition, titled enigmatically “Systems to Emptiness”.
“It’s a metaphor,” says Shabu, referring not only to the title of the show but also to its creation, titled “Wrapped Reality.”
It’s the installation at the end of the gallery, a six-foot carved piece of driftwood in the vague shape of a man who, according to Shabu, “melts” or dissipates under the weight of his impoverished everyday life. His burden is symbolized by his “hat” woven from reeds, fashioned from the same material as chicken coops.
Ngugi adds that the chickens feel oppressed when they are confined in this cage. They feel relieved or liberated once they are freed from it. But this feeling of freedom is short-lived, he continues, since they are soon massacred.
“Human beings are like chickens in that they join systems (including educational systems), where they are promised success and happiness once they pass through the system [or complete their education]says Shabu.
“Instead, it enslaves them because once they graduate they can’t find jobs. They find poverty and emptiness due to the failure of systems, including governance systems,” he adds.
The strips of barbed wire strewn around the driftwood base, he says, are symbolic of the limitations or lack of freedom faced by the poor.
This is a powerful message and matches the Ngugi install. He has created a sort of pyramid made of broken bicycle chains, these (when intact) power the local jua kali knife sharpeners that roam the informal settlements. The pyramid is surrounded by discarded knives that have been sharpened until they are useless.
Calling his installation a Kikuyu proverb, “Kahiu kohiga munu gatemaga mwene ‘, Ngugi says it means, “A sharp knife cuts its owner.” He explains that the knife is like a system that people clamor to enter.
Call it consumerism or capitalism, but it’s a system that keeps people wanting more, more fast food, faster cell phones, bigger TV screens.
Each request is like a sharpening of the knife until the knife is finished and the consumer has little to show for what they have achieved. Again, the system can only lead to emptiness.
Both artists send profound messages about how they view social systems and their treatment of particularly poor people.
Their installations are part of several works they have created to take with them next month when they and several other members of their Wajukuu collective travel to Kassel, Germany. This is where Documenta 15, Germany’s largest art fair, takes place from June to September.
Wajukuu was invited to participate in Documenta 15 by the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa, which organizes this year’s art fair. Ten artists, including Shabu and Ngugi, will represent Wajukuu since the theme of this year’s fair is community sharing like what Wajukuu does, especially when teaching and mentoring children in art.
“We aim to use art to empower the community, especially children and young artists,” says Shabu. Noting that the colonial experience stripped Africans of their cultural identity and heritage, he believes that art has the power to revive people’s culture and identity.
“Kassel was destroyed at the end of the Second World War, which is one of the reasons why Documenta was launched [in 1955]says Shabu. “Art used to bring the city back to life, so now Documenta is considered Europe’s biggest art fair,” he adds.
In addition to bringing their knives and driftwood with them to Kassel, the artists bring a documentary film which they made with the help of several supports, namely the Goethe Institute, the German Embassy and the Fondation Lambert.
“We will also bring my book, called ‘The Mirror’, which contains some of my poetry and paintings,” Shabu explains.