The Urembo exhibition and Hekima performances concurrently running at the Nairobi National Museum through January next year are just the tip of the iceberg of all that TICAH (Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health) is doing in Nairobi this holiday season.
TICAH is best known for its instructive and colourful calendars that its executive director, Mary Ann Burris and her team have produced annually since 2010.
But this year, TICAH’s brought together many of the Kenyan artists who’ve contributed to beautifying the calendar with mosaic artist Eric Manya who has curated their art together with Kenyan material culture from the Museum’s permanent collection. That exhibition plus a series of workshops and art talks are what constitute the ongoing Urembo show.
Mary Ann also asked the former director of Kenya Cultural Centre Aghan Odero to assist with working among indigenous elders and contemporary storytellers to coordinate in several ceremonies and performances during Hekima.
But where TICAH has been putting a major portion of its resources and energies this past year is into a major public art project based inside Uhuru Gardens on Langata Road.
Calling it ‘Dream Cona’, the project received a ‘soft opening‘ this past weekend when a team of Kenyan artists spent all day covering the 30 feet-long (and nine-feet tall) wall that TICAH constructed with a blend of colourful images, symbols and spray-painted graffiti art. The artists were assisted by students from Brookhouse School who helped paint the wall. They also took part in art workshops, one run by Kenyan sculptor Morris Foit, another run by Billy Mutua on linocut printmaking.
But the substantial part of the wall mural was created by the team of local artists including Patrick Mukabi, Mary Ogembo, Nadia Wamunyu, Charles Ngatia, Billy Mutua and BSQ members Bebetu Thufu and Ken Otieno among others.
“We call it a soft launch because we don’t care to make a big splash,” said Mary Ann. “We just want to create more spaces in Nairobi where Kenyans can come and express themselves freely,” she added.
In fact, the wall had already been painted once. “We actually intend to paint it over several more times. But then we’ll take photographs of each mural and transpose it onto big banners that we’ll keep as part of our Dream Cona collection,” said Mary Ann as she pointed to the first banner reflecting the colourful creativity of the first wall mural.
But the wall is only one structure that TICAH’s constructed on the acre-square-sized plot at one end of Uhuru Gardens. The other is a good sized (40 feet by 40 feet) tented performance space that will be used as everything from a theatre stage to a dance and DJ arena to a site where workshops and ceremonies can take place.
Over this past weekend it was used as a storytelling site where the Sigana storytellers performed throughout Saturday. Music was also provided by the popular band, Kenge Kenge.
But Dream Cona is not TICAH’s first foray into Uhuru Gardens. More than a year ago, Mary Ann together with a number of artists constructed a stone labyrinth they call ‘Mahali pa Umoja’ which is similar to the ‘Peace Path’ labyrinth that TICAH built at the Nairobi Museum two years ago with stones from all over Kenya, including Kisii stone sculptures carved by the esteemed Kenyan sculptor Elkana Ong’esa.
This time the labyrinth was conceived with mainly ‘njiru’ building stones while Eric Manya created a multifaceted mosaic at its centre. But the concept behind both labyrinths is similar. Both are sites for meditation and for drawing together peace-making energies from all over Kenya.
“We have had elders come from all over Kenya this year to bless Mahali pa Umoja,” said Mary Ann. They have come from the Samburu, Maasai, Turkana, Giriama, Kamba, Luo, Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya, and Digo among others. “But the majority of elders have been Maasai since we feel that historically this has been their land,” she added.
Having secured all the necessary permits and papers to utilize the acreage at Uhuru Gardens, Mary Ann said the aim of the whole monumental project is to open up more public space for Kenyans to come enjoy themselves and if they wish, to get involved in the creative process.