Revolution brewed in a seedy Kenyan bar

The signpost to the installation. PHOTO | SHIRA MWANGI. 

It is simple but remains a deeply engaging work of art.

When I arrived at the Kuona Trust in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area last Friday afternoon, the signpost to the unpretentious exhibition gestured clearly from a distance. Some aging Kombi, one of the ancient models of the Volkswagen brands that once vroomed through the roads frequently, stood waiting. With rough brushstrokes of paint on its body, the vehicle threw me back into the 70s and 80s when such cars were common on the roads.

I later learn that the current owner of this particular one is a descendant of a Mau Mau freedom fighter, something that somehow frames the conversation that the artist intends to engage in.  

A metre or so from the fairly comical mini-van was a colourful poster announcing the exhibition; things like dates, who, where and also hinting the why it had to be organised now, about 50 years after most African countries attained independence.

The artist of this occasion is Wambui Wamae-Kamiru. She is a young Kenyan who was up to recently mostly interested in poetry and other performing arts, until she ventured into the world of visual arts, after a stint at the Oxford University where she specialised in African Studies. Here, she is telling a story she has keenly followed since her Afrocentric childhood: the heroes of Pan-Africanism and the waves of revolutions that have shaped the African continent over the ages.

Through familiar images, scents and location, the overall picture tells of a seriously introspective person, speaking her mind.

Wambui Wamae-Kamiru, the artist behind Harambee 63 installation. PHOTO | SHIRA MWANGI.

In a way, she puts the question of African heroes for discussion, pointing to the politics of naming that have tended to exclude some people in some instances. All in all, the artist remains focused.

Dubbed Harambee 63, the installation that opened last Thursday evening easily entertains the senses, especially of those who have visited an African bar or the makeshift food kiosks that dot most of the continent’s cities.

The smells, sights, sounds and even texture joins in the storytelling.

The space has been turned into a familiar Kenyan pub: the smell of Kenyan beer brand Tusker wafts across the space; beer bottles, some collected from the past, colour the space, with videos of revolutionary leaders who led the pan-African movement playing.

When Miriam Makeba’s A Luta Continua urging Africans on, and Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa) play, the room goes a bit silent to absorb the deep message that the two pieces carry.

For starters, these are songs that greatly contributed to the struggle in southern Africa, against oppressive regimes. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, a Xhosa hymn to God asking Him for special attention to the continent, is as penetrating and uniting as it was decade ago. 

On the walls of the bar are graffiti stories marking the territory and also lending a voice to the struggles of Africa. Photos of eye-catching women, the simple counter and benches contextualise the conversation. This is not the sleek spaces full of luxury, often found in high places; it is a hustler’s place where most African revolutions have been brewed, suggests Wambui who is seeking opportunities to travel with the exhibition across Africa.

The 63 pairs of gumboots with portraits of prominent revolutionaries, hidden machetes indicating likely instances of insecurity, oily low denomination bank notes and everything else here seems to add to the bigger story.

So why locate the story in a seedy bar?   

Part of the installation by Wambui Wamae-Kamiru. PHOTO | SHIRA MWANGI.

It is a statement, one on the real initiators and drivers of great revolutions in a continent where bars offer a perfect public space for mobilisation, even indoctrination in some instances.

Equally good for mobilisation are churches and more recently funeral venues.

Away from the scrutiny of the official authorities, honest political statements are made in such spaces; communities organise themselves to attack their common problems, political or otherwise, as debates rage. With some merrymaking that often accompany drinking and other social sessions, revolutions are easily fomented.

In the case of Kenya, the testing push for multiparty politics in the 1990s started in such hippy spaces. In later years, revelations of most of the corruption cases and other malpractices have also been made in bars.

South African shebeens, apart from offering the poorer population a chance to jive away the pressures of life, also gave the masses an opportunity to deliberate on their pressing issues of their lives. Here, thoughtful music played a big role, adding some life to a tough course.  And the story repeats itself in several other places in the continent.

In her world of revolutions, Wambui added a twist to the story: invoking the unifying spirit of Harambee and throwing in pieces of Nyama Choma and mandazi (roast meat and buns), two Kenyan snacks that mostly keep conversations going in public spaces.

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