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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Art: The politics of ethnicity, patronage explored in ‘Proximity to Power’ expo

Descent of Monuments by Longinos Nagila
Descent of Monuments by Longinos Nagila

The Proximity to Power exhibition looks at the Kenyan voting patterns while trying to understand why we have repeatedly let the ruling class chaperone us into ethnic enclaves, with politicians negotiating and cutting deals on the account of their ethnic populace; and the common perception being that Luos will vote for a Luo candidate, while Kikuyus for a Kikuyu, and so on.

Taking place at the Circle Art Gallery at 910 James Gichuru Road, Lavington, Nairobi, the exhibition is themed: ‘Requestioning the hate that (self)-hate produced as an aftermath of colonisation, while revisiting scars from our past’.

In a country that has thrived on its diversity, Proximity to Power interrogates how the prospect of a person from our tribe, race or religion ascending to political power influences our choices, making us temporarily compromise our moral values and congregate with ‘our own’, regardless of their reputation. It is an objective confrontation of the rising xenophobia in Kenya, while looking within to interrogate this uncomfortable subject.

It looks at the irony of copying from the colonial guide book — divide and rule, detaining and banishing dissidents, intimidating and executing opponents, high-handedness and marginalising communities perceived to be anti-establishment to solidify one’s ethnic base — while attempting to dissect how innocent phrases like “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, “Tyranny of Numbers” and “My People” have been twisted into political slogans that are misconstrued to marginalise others, leading to exclusion and inequalities.

It’s an attempt to interrogate how the 'proximity to power' syndrome has been used as a political strategy to ascend to and retain political power with the illusion that ‘one’ will benefit more if someone from ‘their’ community ascends to political power. It looks at how ingrained hate for the ‘other tribe’ has created prejudices and a discriminative culture and stereotypes that we use to justify the fear we have for the other ethnic group, race and religion.


Participating artists are Nicholas Odhiambo (Seat of Power), Longinos Nagila (Descent of Monuments into the Mountains of Nationalism Garbage), Onyis Martin (The Society of Spectacles) and Peterson Kamwathi (Six Piece). The exhibition is curated by Thom Ogonga, assisted by Don Handah.

Kamwanthi was born in Nairobi in 1980. His work focusses on interrogating social, economic and cultural spaces in a post-colonial context.

‘Six Piece’ exhibits the metaphor of the six-piece voting pattern. It stands for the desire and move towards the creation of monoliths in Kenya’s political landscape. This is contradictory when one considers the supposed inroads made towards transparency, social justice and accountability.

Nagila was born in 1986 in Busia. He is an experimental multimedia visual artist. His work for the Proximity to Power exhibition is an interpretation of Kenya’s social and political descent into tribalism and nepotism in post-independence and contemporary time.

Political monuments, symbols of nationalism and national pride, are shown sinking into piles of garbage, swallowed in decay and rot. Most of the public monuments in Nairobi have historical importance, commissioned at different times by different authorities to symbolise power and immortalise past leaders. Here, they are used to show the country’s descent into the rot of corruption and tribalism.

Odhiambo was born in Kisumu in 1992. His work, mainly drawings, are intended to evoke feelings and provoke a response from the viewer.

His drawings for Proximity to Power deal with the different ways power can be used to seduce and manipulate. But also how power itself can constrain people’s capacity to act. Odhiambo explores the relationship between so-called leaders and their followers.

Onyis was born in Nairobi in 1987. He developed his practice at The Godown Art Centre and Kuona Trust. He is interested in global geopolitics, delving into global concerns including human trafficking, migration, political and institutional corruption.


In Society of Spectacles, Onyis explores the desire to belong to a place, family or tribe, and the ways this belonging is exploited in the conducting of politics and governance. The work looks at favouritism, the enforcement of exclusionary policies and the perpetration of injustices premised on ethnic allegiances.

The doors are a metaphor for belonging, informed by two common phrases: Ja dhot among the Luo, and Adu wa Nyumba among the Kikuyu. The act of letting one in marks them as one of the group or tribe.

The faces etched onto the doors refer to people whose status as belonging or not belonging is as yet undetermined, while the implements refer to implements of power.

Soils and skulls around the base of the doorways symbolise land, a contentious object in our history, and the casualties of the constant battles for ownership and control.

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