Matter of the Anthropocene, Centrala Gallery, Birmingham

The commentary bellow relates to my activities associated with “Matter of the Anthropocene” exhibition in Nairobi and it was written from the perspective of few months from my return from Kenya. This commentary is also an attempt to understand a social situation in the region. I can say that during my stay in Nairobi I have embodied a role of researcher, observer and participant of events initiated by my but of which I had a limited control. I got involved and took a great responsibility and risk.

The exhibition “Matter of the Anthropocene” was presented in Mathare Art Gallery, Mathare Valley,  Nairobi, Kenya between 6th of June  and 14th of July 2019. Photographs of my work and works of Diana Lelonek were framed locally in Nairobi. I was assisted by Justus Omondi, a carer and manager of the gallery, a local, living in Mathare slum, invaluable mediator and intermediary for all activities and collaborations. We have hanged the exhibition together. Justus has got a good eye for art and great sense of aesthetics. Of course he is not educated in that field however that doesn’t hinder his decision making in relation to exhibition display and logistics. After the initial exhibition in Mathare Art Gallery, “Matter of the Anthropocene” was moved to other, everyday contexts. Simply speaking, I took the exhibition for a trip, a journey to Kisumu, a city by Victoria Lake, a 9 hour drive from Nairobi. The idea of the trip came from Mothers, a female members of Cooperativa Ushirika when they have learned about me coming for a third visit to Kenya. Mothers are associating my presence in Nairobi with trips organised for them and their children. So far we visited Nairobi Museum (during my first stay) and Safari Park and Giraffe Centre. Both trips included a collective meal. All previous attractions were localised near Nairobi and the costs were covered by Pamoja Foundation. However the idea of the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu was very adventurous and risky. The aim was to enable Mothers to visit their parental homes in Western parts of Kenya, near Kisumu. Mothers on their part wanted me to meet their families. The logistics and organisation of the trip for 13 women and their 9 children was not an easy task. We were venturing into partially unknown territory. Potentially we were exposed to the danger of robbery from the local gangs but also the police, rumoured to imposing high fines or wanting bribes often without an apparent reasons. During our journey, works from the exhibition were shown to public during the stops in the mountains and visits in homes of local women Margaret and Diana (on her explicit request). Diana hoped that introducing art to her home would remove evil causing misfortune to her family since her mother died. The house in which the exhibition was shown was recently rebuilt after the former one fell into ruin, almost immediately after the death of Dina’s mother. The space we were hosted in was almost bare, devoid of furniture e.g. seats, table etc. There was no kitchen and no one offered us the food which was an opposition to what we experienced during our visits to previous homes. The private view of quickly assembled exhibition happened there, and I did a curatorial tour. It was the most moving experience of our trip. All our journey was documented and filmed – this documentation was bases of the video “ Ushirkia on Holidays”. One can ask if I had the rights to film those women and their families. I had a conversation with Mothers about it and with each visit to the new household I would ask permission. There was no objection. In contrary, the families were voluntarily posing to photos. The film and the collection of photographs are the souvenirs from the trip, given to each women. That was the plan from the beginning. To make Mothers happy and at this same time to give me an opportunity to become an artist/ethnographer researching matter of human relations in the Athropocene. As it was not given to me to physically create any matter I can see in this specific tangle of relations of the colonial and tribal past with today wild capitalism the great dreadlock, a knot no one is able to undo.

After the trip, artworks came back to the gallery in Mathare slum. There I conducted workshops with pupils from a local school. The students there were approximately 14 years old. I have introduced them to the concept of the exhibition with particular works and set them with the task of choosing one work and taking it outside the gallery walls. The space outside of the gallery was created in collaboration between Maciej Siuda Architects and Mathare Valley community and it is used as an education and recreation zone. My action was aimed to make each student responsible for one work of art, to exhibit it and also be able to talk about it. There was a freedom of how they would response, they were free to make their own commentaries or base it off of my introduction. I wanted to enable them, give them power and responsibility to be those who introduce their friends to works of art present in the context of their own school yard. This action was also documented and recorded. 

The activities of Pamoja Foundation in Mathare are sometimes judged in Poland. I have faced that criticism myself. Is running a workshop for kids a replication of colonial relations because those kids don’t have a clue about contemporary art? I believe that we should not apply double standards in what we offer to kids in Kenya or kids in Poland. If we can simplify explanations of the exhibition concept when we talk to kids in Europe, why would we have the problem with explaining it in this same way to kids in Africa? Kids in Europe may not have a clue about the contemporary art as well. Instead, without forced censorship, pupils from Mathare have shown themselves as very engaged and willing to collaborate. I was simply stunned by their approach. At the end of our session we were talking about various dangers and not only related to climate change and ecology. Students prepared a list of those including drugs, teenage pregnancies, HIV, violence, gang culture, as well as low self-esteem and lack of support from grownups. They have shown an enormous awareness we would not experience talking to teenagers in Poland, perhaps a result of education now dominated by catholic, conservative politics.  I have an impression that the Mathare youth is more mature and mindful of what is happening around them.

But what with the matter of the Anthropocene?

As I have mentioned before we were unable to produce a physical matter, however by embodying the role of ethnographer I observed relations between people. The relations responsible for specific tissue overgrown by interrelations resulting from layers of dependent structures: tribal, colonial, postcolonial, capitalist. My observations are supported by ideas expressed in books by Silvia Federicci “Witches, Witch-hunting, Women”, Caroline Elkins “Britain’s Gulag. Brutal End of Empire in Kenya and Bell Hooks “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre”. My opinions are also build on experience of working with Kenyan women and men, conversations with my Kenyan friend Brian, the only person I was able to fully trust there and on everything I have lived through and felt. Artists are usually more sensitive, they see and feel more that sometimes it even hurt. My work and stay in Nairobi was accompanied by constant mood changes; from happiness to anxiety and fear. I cried almost every day. I have experienced feelings of helplessness, sadness, loneliness. In time I was able to see more, understand more, how this social matter is damaged, tangled and weak. Travelling to Kisumu, seeing those beautiful countryside and good, yet modest conditions of people’s lives I was wondering what makes them leave this green paradise to go to Nairobi slums. On the countryside people do not suffer form hunger, vegetation lasts the whole year, everything is always green. I was also wondering why in the city people are openly hostile, why is it full of uniformed, armed people, why all detached buildings are protected by barbed wire and high walls.

It has its origin in the colonial past. What’s more, now people in Africa are told that the capitalism is the future. In the West we know that capitalism is ending, it is an evil system build on exploitation and domination of small group of people over the weaker ones. The status of women in Africa is very bad, patriarchy convinced men that they are created to dominate. Helpless, poor, unemployed men are relieving their frustration on women, beating them, raping, humiliating. That way they can achieve the fake feeling of being better then others. Women apart from their daily household chores are forced to take up low paid jobs. They work in factories, on the streets selling fruit and often also their own bodies. They are solely responsible for their own children.  This clash between capitalism and poverty, patriarchy and social injustice is an effect of globalisation which is particularly tragic for the most vulnerable. The dominating drive is to subordinate the others. Man over woman, but also members of the one tribe over the other tribe. That is detectable in everyday relations, the fear of exposing where you are from. Often the tribal affiliation is detectable just from the way how people look. Everyone who has even a marginal power would use it without doubts, even in situations as mundane as guarding the entrance to the building or shop..

Talking about power: during my last stay in Kenya I made aseries of Tshirts with Mothers, signed Lady Boss. The story of this work is related to the anecdote. 

In the summer of 2016 Iddi Bashir, a Kenyan artist from Nairobi, involved with Pamoja Foundation, visited Poland. We were to work together on the project. It was not easy. Iddi was calling me Lady Boss and by doing this he was imposing a relation between us. I was to conceptualise the project and to make all decisions, he was to act as a tool in my hands. Collaboration and equal rights of partnership was impossible to establish. I understood how difficult is to leave the imposed by colonisers relation, a white woman unwillingly has to be a Lady Boss, even is she does not want to. Iddi is an artist, he was in Europe before, he is open minded but still embedded in specific model mentioned above. Unfortunately typical Kenyan would be replicating this model too, which dramatically affects the methods and also ways we can work together. Relations between us were established in authoritarian way and it stayed that way. At school the teacher speaks and class repeats. This is the model of learning. It looks similar in other areas as well, the will to find a boss and  to submit. Boss will take responsibility, plans, makes decisions and takes risks. I was put into position of Lady Boss. Unfortunately someone always has to take this position even if it is not a satisfying role but without it the work would not be done. In Kenya I was set back by frustration on many occasions when people were late for hours just to announce that they were not able to do whatever they were supposed to do, when they wanted the money from me just because I’m white or when the money disappeared. Not once, working in the slum I had a feeling of danger, I could not trust anyone and felt that I’m not treated as person but as source of cash. Of course I do understand why it is that way. I understand what happened in social matter, how much it was disturbed. 

But going back to Mothers and Lady Boss T-shirts. I was in Nairobi on few occasions each time initiating work with Cooperative Ushirika. Ushirika is a women’s association and offers education in form of practical skills as well as working on self esteem and learning to be independent. For its members those skills are like passport to be ‘their own women’. Symbolically, during one of our collaborative projects I give those women the title Lady Boss, and they took it with gratitude. The work physically took form of simple white T-shirts embroided by each women by slogan. They were wearing those tshirts during the private view and dance at Mathare Art Gallery, in their own specific way manifesting their emerging self consciousness.   

Anada Devi in her book “Eve out of Her Ruins” talks about situation of women in post colonial countries as being used again by capitalism, specifically by top fashion brands. That is also mentioned by Sylvia Federicci. She points out at close connection between behaviour of Europeans towards local population in colonised countries and treatment of women in Europe. She claims that in XVI century women’s independence in Europe was seriously limited which was also related to establishing women’s position as guardians of households and responsible for the reproduction. All above to fulfil the needs of developing early capitalism. She believes that this moment should be considered as the most important in the process of developing capitalism and in forming modern proletariat. The period of two hundred years of witch hunt was the time  when degradation of the social position of women has begun. Till now burning the women at the stake was treated as almost a matter of folklore. Male historians were not paying attention to this phenomenon. However, the feminist movement discovered that the real reason behind torturing and burning women was fear of their power and danger towards power hierarchy. Those two hundred years of war against women was a turning point in history of Europe. We should be coming back to it in order to understand still common misogyny specific for the relations between men and women today. Wit the African women we are connected by repressions from the hands of white man. Similarly as our women predecessors in Europe, position of African women was degraded in social stratosphere in line with colonising of the African continent. Unfortunately this process has not ended there. We may think that the times when women were burned at the stake are long gone, that it was a result of underdevelopment and only an episode. Sadly, that is not true. Witch hunts has begun in Africa again in years 1980-1990. Federicci sees the close link between that and capitalism in former european colonies. World Bank in the name of so called aid is encouraging commercialisation of the land in Africa, causing the destruction of local communities and loss of small farming. That particularly affects elderly and the women who are the most dependant on “not capitalist” forms of using land. As states Federicci:

In other words, the battle is waged on womens bodies, because women are seen as a the main agents of resistance to the expansion of the cash economy and, as such, as useless individuals, selfishly monopolizing resources that the youth could use. From this viewpoint, the present witch hunts, no less then ideology that the World Bank promotes with regard to land, represent a complete perversion of the traditional conception of value creation, which is symbolized by the contempt that witch hunters display for the bodies of older women, whom, in Zambia, they have at times derided as sterile vaginas 

Contempt and lack of respect towards the elderly, wise, single women, who are facing against complete commercialisation of all aspects of social life; does it sound terrifyingly familiar?



Ushirika on Holidays

Workshops with students