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Artist celebrates Kenya at 50 with conceptual art installation in a bar

The Harambee63 Gumboots, 63 pairs, with graffiti  faces of revolutionaries. Inset: Wambui Kamiru, an artist and poet, stands in front of the bar. Photos/Courtesy
The Harambee63 Gumboots, 63 pairs, with graffiti faces of revolutionaries. Inset: Wambui Kamiru, an artist and poet, stands in front of the bar. Photos/Courtesy 

Wambui Wamae Kamiru, an artist and poet, has just put together her first conceptual art installation, #Harambee63, at the Kuona Trust Gallery.

“I have always loved art and history and it was a question of combining the two, especially because I felt that people need to get an understanding of African history and how we can experience it. Harambee63 was created for that,” she says.

The artist was trying to answer the question that she has often heard people ask as Kenya celebrates 50 years of independence; what have we got to celebrate? The exhibition looks back over 100 years before 1963 (1884 to 1963) at Africa’s political history to show that as Africans and as Kenyans we have a lot to be proud of.

Our independence war did not happen in isolation. It was part of a global movement against the oppression of black and coloured people, unfortunately our history does not compare or take this into account.

“Rather than having a boring history lesson I wanted people to come in sit in a bar where many of these revolutions were formed and experience what it is like to be in that space,” she says.

Harambee63 is set in Kwa Njeri Bar and Butchery and while it sounds, looks and smells like a local bar. It has been in the works for the last year and a half; from initial idea to the actual structure. It took two months to buy the materials and build the bar into the gallery space which is usually a white room.

The bar is significant as it is one of the only two places Africans could congregate without raising suspicion. The other is the church. The two places gave Africans a place to plan revolutions. It is an interactive space where one can sit at one of the two tables have a soda or a meal while watching the videos of the 63 personalities; thinkers and revolutionaries drawn from African history.

The 63 pairs of gumboots have faces of people who are considered either terrorists or heroes but are part in the formation of Africa and played a part in the decolonisation of the continent. Their faces are printed right side using graffiti; a form of street art which often carries political messages.

Ms Kamiru had help from a fellow Kuona Artist, Uhuru B, in printing the faces. The most controversial faces are Robert Mugabe and Gaddafi and surprising faces are John F. Kennedy and Gandhi.

“I did not discuss any personalities after 1963. The ones who are part of this had done or said something significant before 1963 or were talking in relation to what was happening before 1963. Gaddafi came into power when he was 27 years old and then a few years later, he was leading one of the richest countries in Africa. I also wanted to show that we are ordinary people. We are all humans; we have our good and bad. Terrorist vs hero,” says the artist.

Red ribbons on the gumboots represent people who led bloody revolutionists while the black ribbons are the thinkers and theorists.

Why gumboots? In African guerrilla warfare, gumboots have been the shoes that soldiers wear hence used as tools of war. They are also tools of resistance. In the South African mines, the miners found a way to communicate as they were not allowed to talk. Today this is known as Isicathulo or Gumboot Dance.

There is also a small pair of red gumboots which represent future generations that are listening to these conversations and may have to fight similar wars.

This has been an artist journey from Ms Kamiru, whose style is abstract art, mainly acrylic on canvas with newspaper print and more recently copper wire.

“I have been an artist all my life and done it as a side hustle like most Kenyans. I think it’s a disservice to art. But it’s difficult to be an artist in Kenya,” she says.

Ms Kamiru has always aspired to be an artist. She has always loved colour and art was her favourite class- that and biology. Ms Muchemi, her art teacher at Loreto Convent Msongari, played a key part in getting her to love and explore art. “She let me discover, even giving me the keys to the art room and access to all the art supplies. If people were looking for me, they could always find me at the art room.”

Two years ago, she became a professional artist and joined Kuona Trust. She was based there until 2011, and now paints from home and instead collaborates with Kuona on various projects, one of which includes bringing art to public spaces and to populations that might not have access to this type of art ordinarily.
She and five other Kuona artists are working on an ongoing project that involves bringing art into a government hospital in Nairobi – a project which they hope to open this October.
“I think the [creative] struggle is in the form of an overly critical mental committee that tries to make it impossible to create anything. But the beautiful thing about art is overcoming the fear to create and to bear yourself open,” she says.
For this exhibition, she has set up the hashtag: #Harambee63 on Twitter and created a Facebook page: Harambee63. As well as a blog: wambuikamiru.wordpress.com/category/harambee63
Harambee63 runs until 20th September 2013.
mwikalilati@gmail.com

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