Ancient clay mask ties past to present

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Visual artist Syowia Kyambi. PHOTO | KIBE WANGUNYU



  • Creating a series of clay Kaspale-kin masks, Kyambi sees the clan’s beginnings as being in the murky mangrove swamps of Mexico. Kaspale’s character now takes the shape of both masks and puppets.

Syowia Kyambi took us on a fascinating journey last Saturday night, outdoors at Circle Art Gallery as she prepared us to watch her new video installation entitled ‘Kaspale’s Playground’.

Initially working with a musical slide show, Kyambi introduced us to her complex creative process. It included her travels from Kenya and Tanzania to Germany, Norway and Mexico and finally back to Kenya. It became a visual prologue to her video, enabling us to witness the inspired creation of her imaginary character, Kaspale.

The project began as a commission from the Markk Museum of Hamburg, Germany which had previously been known as the Hamburg Ethnography Museum. The renaming reflected an awareness that a deeper decolonizing process might require the intervention of an indigenous African artist like Kyambi.

The museum was linked to a botanical research centre established by the Germans in Tanzania in 1902. The Amani Centre itself had not been in use for years. But it contained archives the Germans apparently hoped Kyambi might translate into an interesting installation, which is exactly what she did.

“The commission probably came as a result of my previous work with museum archival materials,” said the artist.

It was while exploring those archives that Kyambi came across an ancient clay mask which had been classified among Makonde masks and sculptures.

“No one in the museum knew where it was from,” recalled the artist who was intrigued by the ancient African mask. So intrigued in fact that it became ‘Kaspale’ or the trickster. She explained that ‘Kas’ was the prefix of a German word meaning trickster, joker, or shadow. And ‘pale’ referred to the Swahili term for an indefinite ‘over there’ which is where Kaspale came from.

In any case, Kyambi ended up using many of the archival photos that she found at the museum and injecting Kaspale into a number of them.

“Kaspale’s [amusing] intrusion into the images revealed the problematic character of ethnographic museums,” said Kyambi. The implication being that the ethnographic approach to African culture was a product of colonial thought which viewed the ‘Native’ as ‘other’ and subordinate.

The artist went on to peruse ethnographic archives in Norway. Then finally, in Mexico, she created a more comprehensive narrative around Kaspale. It’s the story that Kyambi performed in ‘Kaspale’s Playground.’

At every step in her journey, her trickster’s character developed and deepened. It led to Kyambi creating an ‘origins’ story for Kaspale and her/his clan. (“Kaspale’s gender is fluid,” remarked the artist.)

Creating a series of clay Kaspale-kin masks, Kyambi sees the clan’s beginnings as being in the murky mangrove swamps of Mexico. Kaspale’s character now takes the shape of both masks and puppets.

In the film, Kyambi wears the mask, effectively becoming Kaspale who is also reincarnate as a miniature puppet whose shadow lives in the swamps, fields and finally in the demonstrations in which the trickster ultimately gets serious and actively resists the colonial and neocolonial residue that still exists in the region.

Having worked closely with videographer Kibe Wangunyu who created a kaleidoscopic visual backdrop for Kyambi and Kaspale to move about, the artist, dressed all in white, makes a frantic run through time and space until they arrive in Kenya.

Now using contemporary archival images, it would seem that Kaspale cannot only transcend space and time. The bearer of the mask, namely Kyambi, can also embody the trickster’s spirit of resistance.

Having now arrived in Kenya in 1992, it’s the Mothers’ protest movement that has drawn Kaspale/Kyambi to identify with the mothers whose sons were detained at Nyayo House in the notorious underground torture chambers.

The mothers had been joined by Prof Wangari Maathai whose presence and brutal beating by the Kenyan police attracted global attention to the mothers’ cause.

But ultimately, it was the mothers’ naked act of resistance to the police brutality and State oppression that roused world attention and finally led to the sons’ release.

The mothers’ nakedness, in local culture, embodied a ferocious curse by the women on their oppressors. It’s also what inspired the performance artist Kyambi to re-enact the mothers’ stunning curse in the film.

Kyambi’s nakedness might have shocked those who didn’t understand the depth of the deed’s meaning. Yet the strength of the curse and selfless courage of the women who put their lives on the line to save their sons, finally inspired Kyambi to act in solidarity with the mothers and bring Kaspale’s story back home to Kenya.

Here’s hoping Kaspale makes many more trips to archives to bring the forgotten past to our presence of mind.