Mau Mau women story told in faceless portraits


Wambui Kamiru Collymore combines her talents as a historian and fine-artist in her installation at Rosslyn Riviera entitled Wambui’s Cucu’s Kariiko. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Wambui Kamiru Collymore combines her talents as a historian and fine-artist in her installation at Rosslyn Riviera entitled Wakariru.

The show is named after a song that Kikuyu women sing as they go about their daily business. But over the years, the lyrics have been lost, so only the tune remains.

Lost language is one of the central themes that Wambui addresses in this multifaceted assemblage of ideas and tangible forms, deriving from her quest to document African history and culture.

“A people’s history is embedded in their language, so when the language goes, the history goes with it,” says Wambui who, through her research, has been trying to retrieve what’s been lost of Mau Mau history in order to rectify some of the common misconceptions held by scholars and laymen.

One of those misconceptions is that women didn’t play an active role in the Mau Mau struggle. To disprove that myth, she interviewed Kikuyu women, starting with her own cucu (grandmother) whose kariko (woman’s kitchen) is replicated and situated at the centre of the Riviera’s large exhibition hall.

Made of mabati (iron sheets), it’s equipped with all the essential items Wambui found in her cucu’s kariko, including a live chicken whose abode is next to the three-stoned fire place, the two charcoal stoves, half a dozen drying maize cobs that hang from the ceiling, and all sorts of other sundry items. There’s a stool where the cucu sits and cooks as well as a bench outside her front door for visitors. “It’s outside because only women [and small children] are allowed into a kariko,” Wambui adds.

The 12 female freedom fighters whose faceless portraits are framed and featured in Wambui’s show, backed in every case by a 1893 map of Kenya. “The women are faceless because, [in addition to being portraits of specific women], they represent countless Kikuyu women who were committed to Mau Mau,” she says as she explains the process of creating each portrait.

After taking photographs of the 12, she cut out their faces, so as to make the point that each image could have more than one meaning.

For instance, she identifies Mukami Kimathi as having been a messenger, informant, soldier and recruiter, roles that many other women played. Others were arrested and detained for years, while many lost loved ones in the war.

In the process of removing a face, what remains is a portion of the colonial map, as if to suggest the coloniser would have deleted the women’s identities while colonising their minds.

The issues of cultural identity and lost language are further illustrated by three ‘tin-can telephones’ which are hooked up to the women’s singing the Wakariru.

Their voices are muffled, which apparently is Wambui’s intent since the actual meaning of the song’s lyrics is long gone.

Having already interviewed many Mau Mau women, Business Daily asked her if she was planning to write a book.

The challenge, she says, is that the project is ongoing. She hopes to get to other parts of Kenya to interview more women who were involved in the anti-colonial struggle.

In the interim, her installation is multimedia.

For not only are photography, portraiture and three-dimensional rural architecture are included in Wakariru.

Wambui also has a website that includes all the women’s stories plus other things.

Mukami Kimathi

She’s created a video based on a promise she made to Mukami Kimathi, the widow of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimani.

It was to take her letter and deliver it to the Queen of England, asking her to please identify where the remains of her late husband are buried so he can be given a proper burial.

The video shows Wambui trekking to landmark spots in UK, including Buckingham Palace. Apparently, she didn’t succeed in delivering the letter but the effort was made.

Finally, the other medium that Wambui uses in this installation is the sound track of a session, including three generations reflecting on various aspects of Kikuyu culture that might otherwise be lost to future generations.

The cucu speaks to Wambui in Kikuyu who then translates the cucu’s story into English so her daughter can understand and one day pass on the information to the next generation.

Wakariru will continue until April 15, then to be abridged and included in the East African Visual Arts Trust, which is in Carol Lees’ custodial care and curated by James Muriuki and Marc van Rampelberg.