‘A Black man’s view, a White man’s taboo’ is a series of installations by four young Kenyan artists, on show at the Goethe Institute, Nairobi, Kenya. For Ato Malinda, the curator, the premise of the exhibition stems from a personal question,” why in this African city is the mzungu getting better treatment than me?” .This exhibition invites speculation on why decades of independence have failed to weaken the colonial chains on the minds of some of the formerly colonized. It exposes the everlasting impact of re-programming of the African psyche during the colonization process. It interrogates the real source of inequalities in our societies, whether ethnic tensions are a guise for the real cause of inequalities in our society. Do we take machetes to each other’s necks because we cannot fight the ‘other’? How has histories of violence and prejudice affected the Kenyan psyche today?
The sheer scale and magnetism of Kota’s untitled installation immediately reels one in upon entering the gallery. A man towering to the ceiling is gazing upon a woman carefully working on a stubborn construction of wire and wood. The object of her unwavering attention casts a shadow of dark loamy earth which dramatically takes the shape of the African continent on the floor. Thought through on a more fundamental level, it rather appears like a re-education process in progress; concerned parents/ guardians painstakingly reconstructing the African psyche which succumbed to the apparent effects of colonization. Obviously symbolic, the shadow on the floor invites speculation as to whether its Africa’s lingering curse of mineral resources, or the promise of a future taking form. Elikia M’Bokolo, in Anthology of African art, writes that, “in all of human memory, no continent has had a fate quite like Africa’s. On the negative side, this fate is a long succession of hardships, from the slave trade to colonial domination, to post-colonial abuses. On the positive side, it is a sort of ongoing success story, in which the continent constantly gets up after being knocked down, overcomes the gravest crises each time regaining autonomy that is unceasingly threatened”.
Eight eternally grimacing masks , charred and blackened in fire and soot dangle at the center of the gallery in dramatic silent tension, in Mosoti’s ‘tribal masks’ adding a touch of present day ethnic strains and anxieties- a result of colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy.
Denis Muraguri’s piece is quickly ingenious and blunt. Mouthfully titled ‘The Demoneycratic globalised race’, it is a wide structure which renders a wide landscape dotted with maasai manyatta architecture. From this land, a string of coins in various currencies emerge to flow upwards into a white façade on one side and exiting from another. The coins flow on over the land into a red pulp which like Damocles’ sword, dangles menacingly over an area of this landscape which is sealed off from the rest by a network of twigs.
The white façade into which these coins flow is covered with clippings off a couture magazine in an apparent reference to a mediatized socio-political arena which packages the European culture in an idealized image for the rest of the world to identify with. In dramatic contrast the African is expected to embody a type; the Maasai, for instance, have very little prospect in life other than to find themselves in a position where exposing that very social status has an economic currency – tourist dollars.
Where Kota and Muraguri installations are mercurial. Cyrus Kabiru’s ‘Westernized handprints’ are more subtle, perhaps in conscious awareness of the sensitivity of the topic. Convinced that there are Africans who turn against their kind, in an apparent effort to demonstrate civilization and acculturalization, Kabiru features a chained brown hand among white ones, in his installation.
The exhibition is supported by the German cultural centre in a curious gesture. The systematic colonization of Africa was facilitated at the Berlin conference of 1884, making one wonder if this role in history weighs much more on the German conscience than we care to know. Ashis Nandy, in his look at colonial India suggests that one must move beyond the conventional interpretations of colonialism as a simple division between oppressors and oppressed. Instead, it must be treated as a site of shared conflict, consciousness and emotion, involving and affecting all parties hence giving the Goethe Institute moral impetus to midwife dialogue on this discourse. Perhaps it’s a classic case of overcompensation by the sons for the sins of the fathers. Whichever the case, ‘A Blackman’s view, a White man’s taboo’ is a thematic exhibition stemming from questions four black Kenyan artists are asking themselves as their identity is continually challenged during their interactions with people of other races in their homeland. Given that the colonial period in African history was a “long lasting abrupt transition”, what we must ask ourselves, therefore, is what can we retain or discard from the long lasting effects of this experience?