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January 21, 2019

Art: Old African heroes presented in new ways

Mekatilili wa Menza by Tatu Creatives
Mekatilili wa Menza by Tatu Creatives

recently opened digital exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum celebrates historic Kenyan heroes in a fresh new way. Shujaa Stories is a collection of digitally created portraits of men and women who made significant contributions to their communities or the country. 

The project is the brainchild of digital artist Masidza Galavu and Jeff Muchina of Tatu Creatives, and their team of creators, most of whom are in their twenties. Tatu Creatives worked in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya and Nature Kenya, an environmental society. 

Shujaa means ‘brave’ or ‘a hero’ in Kiswahili. Tatu Creatives chose to focus on pre-colonial heroes because they felt these personalities were greatly ignored and forgotten. 

On display are legends like Gor Mahia, paramount chief of the Luo community, who was said to have supernatural powers. Also from Luo-land is Lwanda Magere, the mythical warrior whose body was made of stone and was undefeatable in battle. There is a representation of Abba Gadas, the ancient system of governance among the Borana community. 

A young man with white chalk face markings is Otenyo Nyamantere of the Abagusi. He fought bravely against British occupation, as did Mekatilili wa Menza, the heroine from the coastal Giriama community. Bukusu military hero Mukite wa Nameme is remembered for uniting the disparate clans in the mid-1800s.

Famous Maasai figures, such as chief Batian and his warring sons, Lenana and Seteu, are shown. But the exhibition also presents lesser-known heroes. Moraa wa Ng’iti of the Kisii people was a heroine and freedom fighter in the early 20th century. Mohamed Abdualla of Somaliland was religious fundamentalist who sparked rebellions against the occupying British and was nick-named ‘the mad mullah’. Syetune was a warrior woman of the Kamba people.

The Tatu Creatives team used various techniques to draw with the illustrations. “Most were drawn completely from scratch, while others involved manipulation to achieve the intended results,” Galavu said. 

Quite noticeable is how the portraits look like western superheroes and characters in the likes of Marvel comic books. They stand in exaggerated poses with muscular bodies and unconventional attire or accessories. The designers wanted their works to appeal to younger generations by using ‘a method that will resonate with them and their current interests in the digital media world’.

Mugo wa Kibiru, the Kikuyu seer, is dressed in yellow robes with a white turban, emitting flashing lights on the palms of his hands. Moraa wa Ng’iti is wearing leopard skin leggings and is seated between two leopards. 

The team conducted their research at the Museum internet and spoke to members of various communities who have a lot of historical knowledge. 

To generate more awareness about Kenyan heroes, the exhibition will include programmes for school children, “to take them through interactive sessions on our history with those legends,” says Galavu. 

As a travelling exhibition, the illustrations are expected to show at different museums. Meantime, the Tatu Creatives team is working on comics and storybooks for each of the Kenyan legends.

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