Photo credit: Wajukuu Art Project.
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Nairobi ghetto art goes global

A unique art exhibition has been going on in Nairobi’s Lavington posh suburb. The exhibition has been specially curated by Wajukuu Arts Collective.

In the well-heeled Nairobi’s Lavington posh suburb, a unique art exhibition has been going on. It started on March 16 and will end on April 2, 2022. It has been specially curated by Wajukuu Arts Collective. In December, 2021, the Collective held Wajukuu Slum Festival from December 26–28 at Mukuru-Lunga Lunga slum, where all the artists live and where they have, over the years, honed their skills as painters and sculptors.

Wajukuu was started by among others, Freshia Njeri, Joseph Waweru, Josephat Kimani, Lazarus Tumbuti, Mary Mugoiri, Ndung’u Kimani, Ngugi Waweru, Sammy Mutinda, Shabu Mwangi, Stanley Githinji and Victor Chege. Both public events were a prelude to participating in the 15th edition of Documenta International Art Festival in Kassel, Germany, that will be held between June 18–September 25, 2022.

Staged every five years, Documenta is ranked as one of the most important art festivals in the world. “For Wajukuu to have been invited to Documenta, it signals their arrival,” said Emmaus Kimani, Wajukuu’s curator and project manager. “After putting in years of dedicated work, their efforts could finally be paying off. In Germany they’re going to mix with the crème de la crème of the artistic world, it’ll be a learning curve for them and I hope they’ll pick up the gauntlet and run away with it.” The 2022 festival will be curated by a nine-person Indonesian, Ruangrupa art group and about 51 artists who will be grouped into mini-majelis, Indonesian word for council, have already confirmed their participation.

The Nairobi exhibition hosted by Circle Art Gallery has been showcasing some of the group’s artistic work that will be on display in Germany. Danda Jaroljimek, the gallery’s proprietor said Wajukuu’s exhibition is one of a kind, a milestone by artists who were, every inch married to their work. Peter Achayo, Nairobi’s fast-rising art connoisseur, said the artists were on the way to scaling the heights of global success.

Wajukuu’s exhibition is one of a kind, a milestone by artists who were, every inch married to their work

Tabitha Thuku, one of Nairobi’s most established paint-brush artists and who has worked with the ghetto artists as their instructor and mentor told me, she has worked with many artists and Wajukuu must rank as some the most committed artists she has ever worked with.   

Mukuru-Lunga Lunga, is a slum located on the south-east of Nairobi, right in the middle of myriad of industrial plants dotting the general area. Mukuru in Kikuyu Bantu language means a gorge. This particular mukuru isn’t a valley, but was a dumping site, hence its derivative, to suggest a valley created out of a garbage dump site.

Photo credit: Wajukuu Art Project.

Started by nine people in the late 1960s, Mukuru-Lunga Lunga today holds a population of 600,000-plus people. Some of the nine people who began the slum used to work for Jack Reuben, a former British Army soldier, who owned thousands of cattle that grazed in the expansive land adjacent to Mukuru-Lunga Lunga and where the current adjacent Mukuru Kwa Rueben slum is located. 

It is one of the toughest slum-hoods of Nairobi, where, the life of a youth is brutish, cruel, dangerous, nasty, poor, solitary and short, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British classicist and philosopher, in his treatise, the Leviathan. Where “lives are ruined among the leaves and decay like pumpkins in a mud-field,” to quote the late South African ghetto poet-laureate, Mazisi Kunene and where rogue police kill the male youth for sport.

Wajukuu means grandchildren. The term was coined from the proverb – Majuto ni mjukuu, huja baadaye – literally, it means, regret manifests itself through a grandchild and it comes much later in life

A Kiswahili language word, Wajukuu means grandchildren. The term was coined from the proverb – Majuto ni mjukuu, huja baadaye – literally, it means, regret manifests itself through a grandchild and it comes much later in life. Contextually, it hints a transference of a “generational sin”, either of commission or omission that suggests the “sins” of a parent is suffered by their grandchildren. In many of the African epistemologies, propitiation of such “sins” is still a common practice. 

Photo credit: Wajukuu Art Project.

“Growing up in the fringes of society, a society bedevilled with poverty and violence, dirt and malfeasance, environmental degradation and raw effluent, unmitigated deaths and disasters, so many hungers, abuse – abuse of children, women and the weak – by adults, able-bodied people, parents, state security agents, I wondered whether I’d live to survive this capriciousness of fate,” reflects a sombre Shabu Mwangi, the director of the Wajukuu Artists Collective. “How is it that we were born in these malodorous, melancholy, mendacious, unforgiving brutal world?”    

The generation of Shabu’s parents were driven to the periphery of Nairobi’s inner city by a combination of conspiratorial forces – both local and international. The post-independent Kenya fervently took to capitalism and aligned itself to international capital. “Hakuna kitu cha bure,” there is nothing for free, founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta espoused his political mantra to Kenyans early in his presidency, once the country gained political independence in 1963. “Kazi na jasho,” you must labour for your sweat, roared a president eager to please and maintain favour with the country’s erstwhile imperial rulers.  

In the 2000s, Hope Worldwide which is affiliated to Nairobi Christian Church started a rehabilitation programme for the Mukuru kids. “That is how I got to know all the budding Wajukuu artists: I brought them up,” said Caleb Odhiambo, one-time Hope’s Program officer. They led tough lives; many of them were pulled in the direction of the dangerous criminal world, yet some of them survived, largely because of their doggedness, resilience, determination to live and make good their optimism and survival instincts to see another day. So, they, truly have come from afar – they are now celebrities in their own right.”

Caleb’s work in Mukuru was to nurture, provide refuge to the young lads and hope to dissuade them from the attraction of the criminal and gang life. “Trust me, it was a tough call,” says Caleb. “Gang life had every allure to offer: an admirable gung-ho lifestyle, a sorority to look up to, a criminal underworld that provided some cash and food, so long as you weren’t caught by police, or killed by mob.” So, the organisation started a kids’ club. “The truth of the matter is, we began the kids club to absorb the “graduates” of Mukuru Art Centre in Lunga Lunga.”

Photo credit: Wajukuu Art Project.

 

Mukuru Arts Centre was a project of Sr Mary Killeen, the Irish Catholic nun and teacher of the Sisters of Mercy order, who has lived in Kenya for the last 45 years. Born in Phibsboro, Dublin, Ireland, she is 75-year-old and came to Kenya in 1976. “Sr Mary would do a fantastic job of training the kids in curves and colours, but after that what next?” observed Caleb. “They didn’t have anywhere to transition to, once they finished their course and they couldn’t hang around the centre because they needed to give room to other children. That is how we came up with the idea of a club, a kind of a half-way house to provide meals and hopefully, keep them off the bad streets. It didn’t always work out that way: many, after a few weeks of turning up at the rehabilitation centre, would get bored and restless – the meals weren’t enough to keep them from the beckoning gangs and the nasty streets. Others, couldn’t even hold themselves from pinching equipment from the centre to sell off cheaply to the waiting street merchants.”

Ebony-skinned and lean with a deceptive calm that belies his tough upbringing is Lazarus Tumbuti. The dreadlocked Tumbuti, is a metal sculptor, as well as a canvass painter. One of Tumbuti’s everlasting canvass painting is that of a portrait of a lady, deep in thought with folded arms, her sunken eyes looking into the yonder. “I did that painting sometime in 2013, it’s one of my earliest painting, I like it a lot. The painting reminds us all of the trials and tribulations that women in the ghetto undergo,” explained Tumbuti. He speaks fondly of his mother. He could, as well, have been thinking of her grit and resilience, as he mixed the colours to create the sombre curves of a woman in turmoil, with his brush.

Wajukuu become a home away from home, a refuge, says Freshia Njeri. “It saved my life. Joining Wajukuu was the best thing that happened to me.” Njeri joined Wajukuu in 2008. She remembers as fate would have it, she met Shabu and Joseph Waweru and they asked her to join them at Wajukuu. “It become my security and safe house and soon, Shabu and Tumbuti become my very first art instructors. The rest as they say is history.”

Freshia the only lady artist who will travelling to Germany says, it’s been a long walk and a lot of sheer hard work to where she is now. 

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