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EXHIBITION

Vanishing history remembered through art

'Wakariru' is Wambui Collymore's first exhibition in three years

In Summary

• Art installation looks at the loss of language, history, memory and orally documented knowledge.

Installation at Wakariru
Installation at Wakariru
Image: KARI MUTU

Artist Wambui Collymore has returned with a solo exhibition called Wakariru, her first show in three years. Taking place at One Off Art Gallery’s pop-up space in Rosslyn Riviera, this art installation looks at the loss of language, history, memory and orally documented knowledge.

Wambui started off as a painter and has participated in numerous group exhibitions. But more recently, she works as an installation artist. Wakariru is a multi-faceted show. The first thing you see is a blue, one-room mabati wall house, a common structure you find all over Kenya. It is a replica of her grandmother’s kariko (small detached kitchen) with three-stone hearth, mortar and pestle, porridge pot and woven baskets.

Wambui uses the kariko to explore the libraries of information and history that exist in the memories of the elderly. The kitchen was the traditional place for cooking, sharing problems and passing of wisdom from old to young women. Wambui spent many hours in her grandmother’s house, and an audio recording inside the house replays real conversations between them. From a very personal perspective, she underscores the importance of preserving culture and history through everyday language and words.

Wakariru is the name of a song traditionally sang by women as they went about their chores. As a child, Wambui’s grandfather used to sing Wakariru to her and the song can be heard playing in the gallery from tin can telephones hanging on the walls. The tune is familiar but few people still remember the words. “Being an oral culture, I am concerned that as we forget our languages, we lose knowledge,” Wambui said.

Wambui has a Master’s degree in MSc African Studies from the University of Oxford, UK, and this exhibition demonstrates her strong interest in history, colonialism and culture. She is also the founder of the Art Space gallery, which closed in 2017 but continues as an online art gallery.

Still from the era of her grandmother, Wambui takes us on a different journey, to review the overlooked role of women in the Mau Mau. Along the gallery walls are portraits of women who played an active role in Kenya’s freedom struggle. But all the women’s faces have been cut out because in the familiar story of Kenya’s independence, these women represent the unremembered heroes.

They were messengers, food carriers, scouts and oath-givers, sustaining the fighters in the forest. “A lot of Kenya’s oral history is preserved in oral archives... and some of those archives are only available when you understand the language that is spoken,” Wambui said in an interview.

Expounding on the forgotten heroes’ theme, a video clip shows a lonely woman delivering letters to historic statues and monuments in the UK, all of them linked to the colonial era. The lack of human interaction echoes the impersonal way the UK relates its imperial past.

By its unconventional nature, Wakariru takes the viewer to the familiar and forgotten, prodding us to preserve our own diminishing languages and cultural inheritance.