By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Apart from not being able to hold exhibitions in public spaces, most Kenyan artists’ lives haven’t been seriously disrupted by the coronavirus since many were already working from home.
What with spaces like the GoDown evacuating artists so they could prepare for the ground-breaking of their brand new multipurpose art centre, many have set up studios in their home environs while putting more of their artwork online through multiple social media platforms.
Fortunately, one former GoDown artist already had a plan to be out of the country before the pandemic hit and after he had already moved out of the GoDown.
Kaloki Nyamai was already on his way to South Africa to take part in an inaugural exhibition in the pristine town of Stellenbosch, a short distance outside of Cape Town.
The only Kenyan artist to attend the Stellenbosch Triennial at the Stellenbosch University Museum, Kaloki may or may not have known beforehand that the town is renowned for being an ultra-wealthy, elite and snow white community. It was also a town apparently unprepared for a showcase of contemporary Pan-African artists, curated by the Xhosa feminist, Khanyisile Mbongwa.
Khanyisile had been picked to curate the show audaciously entitled ‘Tomorrow there will be more of us’ by two curators based at the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust, Andi Norton and France Beyers. The two were actually the ones who’d conceived of the Triennial in the first place. Having supported public art exhibitions around the town for the last decade, they had wanted to launch a bigger showcase of African art. And so they came up with the Triennial idea.
They had known Khanyisile through her work with the Gugulective Artists Collective, based in Gugulethu township. What was ironic about their choice is that while their goal was to present art that promoted reconciliation among post-apartheid people, Khanyisile aimed to curate a show that exposed Pan-African art that explored economic and cultural themes which were bound to be implicitly political.
Kaloki’s participation in the Triennial had been complicated even before he reached the town renowned for giving birth to men considered the ‘framers of apartheid’. The materials he required to assemble his original installation idea were beyond the budget he’d been allocated. Then, once he got there, the space allocated him was much smaller than he’d anticipated.
His contribution to the show could have been over at that point. But Kaloki’s a resourceful man. And as he’d gotten to town in good time, he was advised by Khanyisile to ‘make do’ with whatever local materials he could find which he did.
Undaunted, Kaloki took some time to explore the town and visit as many wineries as possible. It was what he found in his local travels that compelled him to create an installation that became one of the most controversial and talked about in the entire Triennial.
Called ‘one of the show’s strongest’ and most evocative installations, Kaloki’s art was aptly entitled ‘Your Comfort is my Discomfort.’
In a word, he was appalled by the racist reaction of the local whites to his presence in their billionaires’ enclave. Having exhibited his art everywhere from London to Paris and beyond, Kaloki had never seen or felt such emotive hostility as he did in Stellenbosch.
His installation was a bold reaction to the many inhospitable encounters he’d had in a town committed to whiteness, wealth and disdain for multiracial democracy.
That was how Kaloki came to collect a huge pile of cow dung and place it at the centre of his installation. The heaping mount of manure was encased in a mabati-styled house which one had to enter first in order to see the artist’s reaction to abhorrent racist glares he had got from the locals discomfited by so many dark people in their town.
The low light inside his ‘house’ meant the mound was smelled before it was seen. The observer could also have been distracted by all the sisal strings hanging from Kaloki’s mabati ceiling. The ropes were reminiscent of the lynchings of blacks in a white supremacist world. But these ropes are all unknotted as if to say black people are no longer bound by your apartheid-system or racist terror tactics.
On the outside of Kaloki’s house hangs a large abstract painting meant to attract one to come see more of the artist’s works. His contribution to the Triennial has had a shock-factor that no other art piece has had.
Kaloki’s gift to Stellenbosch is unlikely to be forgotten soon.