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Challenging negative ethnicity through art

Ordinary lamp children’s chairs and table with
Ordinary lamp children’s chairs and table with two books that stereotype Kenyans. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Stereotypes are rarely complementary. That’s because they box people into limiting definitions which tend to be static, unchanging generalisations.

So where do they come from if they are so confining and uncomplimentary? And why do people tend to use them in everyday conversation and early socialisation?

These and many other complicated questions are issues addressed in Wambui Kamara’s current installation exhibition at Kuona Trust.

“Your Name Betrays You” opened last Thursday night with Wambui explaining that this exhibition was highly personal as she’s encountered the same sort of prejudice that her show’s title implies which coincidentally is a direct quote blurted out by the Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka at a press conference a little more than a year ago.

An exhibition informed by the esteemed scholar-historian Terence Ranger and his essay 'The Invention of Tradition in colonial Africa', Wambui’s installation has more intellectual than aesthetic appeal.

In fact, the show could pose a major challenge to anyone expecting to see pretty paintings on Kuona’s mini-gallery walls this week. That’s because the hall is filled with objects every one of which (Wambui explained on opening night) has a specific significance. In other words, each one serves as symbol for something other than what’s obvious.

So hers is not a show that’s easily deciphered, especially if you’re not an historian (as is Wambui) or social scientist of some sort.

Classification

Instead, one will have to figure out why a smart woman like Wambui would fill the hall with five wooden children’s chairs and one uber-seat, one metal box filled with multiple drawers that looks just like an old-fashioned library card catalogue.

One clue to the box’s meaning could be the label at the front of every drawer naming a specific ethnic group found in Kenya.

The same sort of ethnic classification can be seen in one of the two books she’s carefully set on a tiny lamp-lit table. Both the drawers and the book (a tourist guide book to Kenya) are steeped in stereotypic characterisations of Kenyans. (Now it feels like we might be getting somewhere in figuring out what this scholar-artist is on about.)

The big question one has to ask about her show is why she’s running an old documentary video about the Queen’s coronation that’s being screened on top of a wall filled with note cards one can hardly read while the video is on.

One could easily find Wambui’s installation exasperating, and yet she’s calculated everything about it, even the exasperation which could compel the observer to ask more questions like what’s this show all about?

The biggest clue comes with the one Terence Ranger quote from The Invention of Tradition’ about the way traditions (which could include stereotypes) are man-made: the idea being (in both his and her view) that ethnic ‘traditions’ or clichéd stereotypes were clearly calculated and conceived by the colonizer to ensure he retain control over his ‘native’ subjects.

It’s a startling notion, to think our entrenched stereotypes of the sort that Wambui typed on the ordinary note cards, (including the dates in which they were actually espoused either in print, on radio or TV) were somehow ‘invented’ as a sort of colonial strategy to ensure the ‘natives’ remained divided from one another, thus making them easier to rule.

Ethnic cliches

On the exhibition’s opening, someone asked Wambui if there was any progressive message to be found in her installation.
Her response was clear. She said she simply wanted people to ‘step back’ from typical ways of thinking about fellow Kenyans and begin to appreciate where the ethnic clichés came from, that they are not indigenous or inherent in one community or other.

Instead, she emphasised that human beings are much more than stereotypes. They are individuals with a capacity to grow and change and even transcend the typical ways that people think about their own communities and others.

I believe she meant the chairs represented ethnic clichés which are small and uncomfortable (like the mini-chairs) apart from the giant seat possibly meant to represent to colonial template that towers over its cloned copies.

The one apparent anomaly is the second book Wambui placed beside the Kenya guide book. It’s the photography collection of 2007-8 post-election violence entitled Kenya Burning.

The significance I found in that ‘symbol’ is that it’s a book reinforcing the neo-colonial cliché that ‘Africans cannot rule themselves. They need a colonial master or at best, a Big Man since they can’t control themselves’ which in Wambui’s view is a fallacy, not a fait accompli.

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