Wambui Brings To Light The Forgotten Women’s History In Wakariru

Wakariru is nostalgia- a childhood memory that lingers on when all is forgotten. The memory of the words may long be forgotten but the melody still lingers on. It is this codes that the amiable artist stretches as she feeds her audience the rich Mau Mau History.

The opening of ‘Wakariru’, the installation exhibition by Wambui Wamae Kamiru Collymore
on March 24 drew a lot of buzz within the art-enthusiasts circles, there was excitement and everybody seemed to enjoy not only the camaraderie but the intricacies of history woven within an installation that included audio-visual, physical and photography.

“It is only Wambui who can build a structure like that within a building,” an onlooker mused pointing at an old ironsheet kitchen gracing the hearth of the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery at the Rosslyn Riviera Mall in Nairobi. The small kitchen called in Gikuyu ‘Kariko’ represented the traditional cooking place with essentials like chicken ‘sleeping’ area in the corner maize hanging from the roof posts, the cooking stones and the kitchen chair. Outside there was a bench where rice could be sorted and spread on the right shoulder of the Kariko bean plants have been spread on a sack to dry. This is Wambui’s cucu (grandmother’s) Kariko.

The kitchen as depicted in this installation is at home with almost everyone in Kenya and Africa, not the same but in most instances, this denotes a complete home with a rich history, where from the eldest child to the youngest of breath, one has at some point made a fire or learned to make a fire at the three stone fireplace, well a master would be at ease and with teary eyes, endure the smoke looking forward to a great meal.

Now whether the Kariko represents the perceived place of women or not, it is left for the audience to decide. However, this particular Kariko, speaks a lot about where you can find a ‘cucu’ (grandmother) to share history with. If she is not sitting on the bench outside sieving through cereals or talking to guests-probably neighbors. She would be in the Kariko tending to the fire.

Given the scanty information about the role of women in the Mau Mau war in Kenya, Wambui a historian and a renowned Kenyan artist took it upon herself to recreate her Master’s Thesis into the masterpiece that spreads on the walls of the gallery in the form of twelve faceless photos of women. And how well to portray it if not by starting with her very own grandmother ergo the kitchen where the journey into the discovery of the twelve legendary women begun. They could be twelve but the faceless approach gives them infinite numbers. The photographs on the wall could represent any woman who bravely contributed towards the liberation of Kenya. Her approach though specific, is broad in meaning and could take diverse interpretations.

For instance, in one of the photos, there is Lucy Njoki Ndung’u whose four months old baby was killed by a Kenyan regiment soldier in Ngingo in the central region of Kenya. The faceless photos represents the mother bereft of a child, pained and living on to see the future of her country. Many of the women during the dark times of the struggle for Kenya’s independence and the state of emergency that followed lost their loved ones and some were detained for long periods. Some lived on to tell the tale while others succumbed to the drudgery of colonialism.

Without the faces the photos also speak about the attempts to bury the memory and history of such valiant women into the history of the forgotten and like Orwell’s 1984, be fed new histories made to fit the current times and the needs of the few.

The video installation projected on the kitchen walls show a young woman taking a letter to the chief architects of colonialism in the UK. Currently occupying a central role as heroes, with statues gallantly dotting London, the woman, one would rightly conclude, wants answers from each of the sculptures. Now the sculptures cannot see nor talk to her. It is such a depravity of information that has made it difficult to get to the bottom of colonial atrocities and right the history of the colonized countries.

As you enter the Kariko, there is a booming voice emanating from the corner. Listening to the voices- actually two voices- a woman narrates a story in Agikuyu which is simultaneously translated to English. In Africa in the past, this is the only way information was passed on from one generation to another.

The final installation are tins hanging on the wall, remember the tin-can telephones?, well this is exactly that, but not for you to make a call but just in representation, a song buried in the past. The tin-telephones had a looped muffled tune Wakariru, muffled almost to mimic that of a dirty, rugged shellac-phonograph record-playing on the gramophone. The song resonates within the ear and it is hard to let go once you listen to it. It is an earworm and follows you down the hall as if it is rising from the tins creating a surround system of music repetitively intoxicating your mind. Furthermore, Wakariru is long lost like the muffled voices in the tin cans representing the disintegrating language a touch with culture as new cultures emerge. However much we try to cling to the past, it slowly dwindles to an earworm, the tone is there but the words… lost.

The Wakariru is a song young women girls from the Kikuyu community in Kenya used to sing as they went about with their daily chores like fetching water or collecting firewood.

The installation by Wambui runs until April 15.

Photo Credit: Eric Gitonga Photography


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