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Society & Success

Photographer uses art as weapon to fight tribal politics

Photojournalist Boniface Mwangi created his own exhibition on post-election violence. Photo/Courtesy
Photojournalist Boniface Mwangi created his own exhibition on post-election violence. Photo/Courtesy 

When graffiti artists wanted to make a statement about the politicians and corruption, they made their way to Pawa254.

And when Poets and Writers Online (Powo) decided to discuss Entrepreneurship and the Creative Arts at their monthly meeting in April, they also knew the best venue for brainstorming would be Pawa254, the space set up for Kenyan artists to come together around political and economic issues related to social change—‘Pawa’ being Sheng for power and 254 is Kenya’s area code.

“We want to use art as a weapon to fight political and economic injustice,” said Pawa254 founder Boniface Mwangi. The award-winning photographer, who quit his job following the 2007-8 post election violence, did so specifically to become “more political”.

“I wanted to become a ‘political activist’, using art as a tool of change,” said the man who has made people weep with his award-winning photographic exhibition and books.

Kenya Burning was created initially with support from The GoDown Art Centre, the Kenyan literary journal Kwani! and Ford Foundation.

The exhibition, which featured photos by Mr Mwangi and Japanese photographer Yasuyoshi Chiba, came out concurrently with Mr Mwangi’s first book called The Price of Tribal Politics, which can be downloaded for free from www.scribd.com.

“The Kenya Burning book came out after I proposed it to (GoDown’s) Judy Ogano,” Mr Mwangi said.

The enterprising photojournalist also created his own exhibition on post-election violence. Picca Mtaani only features Mr Mwangi’s poignant images.

What distinguishes his exhibit from GoDown’s is that his has travelled all over Kenya to no less than 20 cities and towns. His goal has been, he says, to “heal the nation” which coincidentally is also the title of a short video made to capture spontaneous responses of Kenyans to Picca Mtaani as it has journeyed around the land.

All the while he was taking Picca Mtaani around the country, Mr Mwangi was thinking in the long-term, how to promote especially the visual arts as a tool for affecting political change. That’s how Pawa254 was born.

“The idea was to create a venue where mainly visual artists could create means of grabbing people’s attention who are either illiterate or too busy to read much,” said Mr Mwangi.

“There are no schools in Kenya that specialise in teaching photography,” said the man who now runs bi-monthly master classes at the Pawa254 offices in Nairobi.

So far the master classes have featured professionals like Mohammed Adow, who’s in charge of Aljazeera Swahili, Bob Collymore, Safaricom CEO and Sam Ouma, formerly photo editor for Nation Media Group, among others.

Huge sacrifices

But to reach this stage, Mr Mwangi has had to make huge sacrifices. He didn’t want to be dependent on foreign donor funding, so he raised funds by any means he could find.

Initially, he sold his car, then his wife’s, and finally he sold his photo studio. “I also had to take a loan from a friend. All that enabled me to get a seven-year lease on space where membership is free.”

Mr Mwangi did get what he calls a “small grant” to cover programmes like the Master Classes from the Open Society Foundation.

Otherwise, what has also enabled him to pay the rent at Pawa254 is the fellowships he has recently received.

One was a Magnum fellowship which he got from New York University for the study of documentary film and human rights.

Another was a TED fellowship which saw him studying ‘technology, education and development’ (TED) in 2010 at Oxford University.

And currently, he is an Acumen fellow, funded by the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) and Rothschild Foundations.

One factor that has featured significantly in Mr Mwangi’s attracting so much scholarly support is the Reconciliation Model that he devised and named Picha Mtaani, which has served as an “icebreaker” allowing people to talk freely about negative ethnicity.

Picha Mtaani has not only been displayed all over the streets of Kenya. It has gone to the US and UK as well as to Germany and many countries in Africa.

In the process, it has proved to be highly effective inspiring people to do soul-searching about the need to transcend tribal politics and support the call for peace.

Mr Mwangi’s Acumen fellowship is about to end, and he may find it easy to obtain donor funding in support of Pawa254.

“But our goal is to be self-sustaining. The freedom fighters who fought for Kenya’s Independence didn’t look for donor funding, so why should we?” said Mr Mwangi who officially opened Pawa254 in November last year.

Committed to using his photographic skills to keep his arts centre alive, he says he still has many clients. “I don’t need to be a rich man,” he says. “As long as I can pay the rent and cover my children’s school fees, I’ll be okay.”

Nonetheless, Mr Mwangi has an ambitious agenda at Pawa254.

He wants to change the political landscape of Kenya, using art to end social injustice and tribal politics and foster peace .

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