Kapsale's playground: Syowia time travels to Nyayo era detentions


Syowia Kyambi's ceramic portrait of Kapsale at NCAI, on April 1, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

One event that should not be missed in 2023 is Syowia Kyambi’s ‘Kaspale’ at the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI).

We have been introduced to Syowia’s mischievous trickster character in the past, at venues like Circle Art Gallery, National Museum, and Nairobi Art Fairs.

But nothing can compare with what the artist reveals about her multifaceted Kaspale than what she has exposed at NCAI.

It is the perfect venue to discover Syowia as well, who I think looks like Kenya’s first contemporary Renaissance artist, both for her breadth of vision and depth of imaginative artistry, as well as for her mastery of many genres of fine art.

All those claims can be confirmed if one can reach NCAI where Syowia combines an art exhibition filled with both paintings, photography, and sculpture together with an immersive art installation, a whole gallery full of selected video clips of her various performance-art experiences, and also a whole library where she features full documentation of Kapsale’s life journey, including her/his genealogy dating back to long before Syowia started her Kapsale project in 2018.

The project itself began while she was researching as an artist in residence at the archives of the MARKK museum in Germany.


Kapsale's Ancestors by Syowia Kyambi at NCAI on April 1, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

It has evolved rapidly since then, including her offering a live performance this past weekend when guests were invited to ‘Kapsale’s playground’.

The playground is an outstanding illustration of why Syowia has created Kaspale. He/she has become a sort of avatar that she can send anywhere in the world anytime.

In this instance, she sends ‘them’ to Nyayo House where all the documentation on Kenyan citizens is housed.

But it is also the venue where, in the bowels of the basement, citizens were detained and tortured. She pays special attention to the mothers of political prisoners who protested their sons’ incarceration.

Professor Wangari Maathai joined them at what is now known as Freedom Corner and was badly beaten in the process.

The beatings only stopped after these heroic mothers began to strip as a sign of protest and a powerful taboo that the men had to respect for fear of being cursed forever.

Kapsale’s magical ability to time travel and move in and out of historical moments enables the artist and her avatar to make profound statements and memorable reflections on the past that must not be forgotten for truth’s sake.

NCAI is large enough to devote whole rooms to Syowia’s work which also should send a message to other Kenyan artists.

It’s about the need for them to document their art, or else it can easily be lost or simply forgotten. At NCAI, the first room is where we see the artist on video.

It is also where we watch how she uses her whole body graphically to serve as her artistic canvas. She doesn’t need a paintbrush or primed canvas to express herself.

Instead, her body as well as her avatar have the power to silently project their symbolic significance. Her performances can take over whole cities as we saw her do in one of her videos set in Germany.

The Institute’s next gallery is massive. Yet it is easily filled with Syowia’s sculptures and photography. Many of her clay works relate to Kapsale who she sometimes performs behind one of her clay masks.

Next is the gallery reserved for the immersive experience. It reflects aspects of Kapsale’s origin which Syowia imagined has its roots in the mangrove forests that grow, not only in Kenya but all over the world in tropical climates.

The artist’s fantastic ‘research’ into Kapsale’s ancestry, entitled Origin will take up the last room in NCAI which is a library of art-related books but where there’s room for Kapsale’s genealogy.

It’s the immersive installation that I found most surprising. Created using transparent fabric which Syowia covered with images of tangled mangrove roots.

She then used the fabric to create tunnels and secret rooms filled with colourful creatures that look as if they’d emerged from deep underwater where they lived becoming Kapsale’s ancestors.


Syowia Kyambi's ceramic portrait of Kapsale at NCAI, on April 1, 2023. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The ancestors are graphically depicted in genealogical style after Syowia decided her avatar needed a historical background.

Being both male and female, Kapsale required a complete identity for the kind of travels Syowia intends to send her/him on.

This past Thursday, Syowia gave an artist talk in which she spoke about her avatar, noting she expects Kapsale to have a long life, travelling into the future as well as into the past.

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