Imagine Mukuru Lunga Lunga slum being at the heart of an international art project.
That’s exactly what we found when we made our way through Nairobi’s Industrial area to Lunga Lunga road, and onto what one can hardly call a road.
But the rocky, circuitous path to Wajukuu Art Centre was the only way to see Kenyan, Swiss, and Venezuelan artists at work, preparing for their group exhibition that opens February 10 and will run for three weeks.
“Matza Edgelands Nairobi: Digital Informalities” is the name given to this fascinating collaborative project, curated by Severin and Anja Wyden Guelpa.
The Swiss couple, who founded Matza in 2019, have their eyes on seven cities, not just Nairobi, as they investigate how local communities are transitioning into the 21st ‘digitalized’ century in a world still caught up in old analogue ways of thinking, working, and being.
The artists have all been attending a three-week residency at the Wajukuu Artists Collective where they have been immersed in intense discussions about both the theory and practice of digitalization and its impact locally.
“The theoretical side of the residency involved a week of brainstorming and exchanging ideas about digitalization and how it is impacting local communities, especially in terms of security and freedom,” Severin told BDLife.
Explaining how they had heard about the Wajukuu Art Collective and its founder Shabu Mwangi as they were considering who to collaborate with in Kenya, Anja said they met him in Germany after hearing he was there, participating in the Documenta 2022 Festival.
“We had already planned to go to Documenta [one of the largest art fairs in Europe], so we went and met him there.”
The Wajukuu artist residency and the ‘Digital Informalities’ exhibition came out of that initial encounter.
“We had been thinking about starting our own residency program, inviting artists to come and stay with us for a month,” Shabu said. “So, their suggestions were perfectly timed.”
In fact, the original idea derived from the Edgeland Institute whose founder had been part of a two-year exercise initiated by Harvard University.
“Harvard had, shall I say ‘incubated’ the project to investigate how digitalization has impacted local communities,” Severin said.
“They called on the Edgeland Institute to implement the project, and Edgeland invited us to collaborate with them,” he added.
The other cities where these issues will be addressed are Medellin, Columbia, Beirut, Lebanon, Singapore, Chicago, USA, and Geneva, Switzerland.
The day I went to Wajukuu, the artists had just completed the first week of the residency, so they were just beginning to implement the ideas generated during the brainstorming.
Among the eight artists and architects attending the residency, five are Kenyan. They are Joan Otieno, Wanjiru Ngure, Nabalayo, Ngugi Waweru, a cofounder of Wajukuu, and Shabu himself.
The others are Ronald Pizzoferrato from Venezuela, Mounir Ayoub, originally from Tunisia but now Swiss, and Flurina Rothenberger, from Switzerland, like Severin and Anja.
The day I made it to Mukuru Lunga Lunga, I found Joan Otieno busy constructing a ‘Safe house’ for girls and single mothers, seven of whom were already helping her work. She was in the process of building a rondavel-like ‘hut’ big enough for girls to come and feel safe.
“We’ll be building the safe house with mabati (corrugated iron),” said Joan who hopes she can get new metal sheets for the house.
“Then, after the show is over, I’ll be coming back here and teaching them skills in recycling, just like what I do with vulnerable young women and girls at Warembo Wasanii [in Korogocho],” she added.
I was also able to see Shabu who said he’s concerned with environmental issues.
“I’m in the process of making a video on the [filthy] condition of the Ngong River,” he told BDLife. The river which is covered on both sides with filthy plastic bags runs right in from the Wajukuu Art Centre where most of the visitors have stayed.
The exhibition included organized ‘guided tours’ around the settlement to see the artists’ works this Saturday after the exhibition opens.
All of the artworks are meant to address issues of security, freedom, and the trust required for a community to “thrive in a world marked by digitalization.”
“Wajukuu already has a number of projects aimed at improving the quality of life in the community,’ Joseph Kimani said. “I know because I’ve been part of the Wajukuu Children’s Art Club since I was 7,” he added. “Now I’m 27!”