THE POWER OF EARTH IN MY WORK
Essay for the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
The people that I hale from are crop cultivators and landowners. We're farmer people. My family is from Nyeri, the farthest north town of the Gikuyu people. Nyeri is very green land. It is rainy and cool with red, volcanic soil. Mostly highland, it rolls and dives for twenty kilometers up to the base of Mt. Kenya. The town is flanked on both sides by national parks with thick woods, bamboo forests, savannah and waterfalls. Black rhinos, leopards and lions saunter right up to your car because of successful controls on poaching in recent years. The elephants are more wary, however, aware of the slaughter of past generations in their strong, collective memory. Cattle and tea and subsistence farms quilt the area. It is a naturally life-giving place; maize, beans, potatoes and vegetables grow easily there. Healthy harvests and abundant water ward off the famines that inflict other parts of the country.
The British invaded and occupied this part of Kenya from the late 19th century and thousands of families were forced off of their land. Once independence was achieved, my parents' families were able to return to their homes. Both my father and mother have childhood memories of these dark and powerful times. This gesture of homecoming has become a strong symbol for our people, a testament to the success of our freedom fighters and a defining aspect of our 'new' identity as Kenyans. It is these issues that plague us, that obsess me and my generation as we tackle with issues of identity, with the crisis of confidence, with our ambivalence towards the West and our distinct place in having aided in developing and enriching it.
The British began establishing a colonial presence in Kenya in 1885. Land was the main attraction. The British East Africa Commission of 1925 wrote that Kenya encompassed "some of the richest agricultural soils in the world, mostly in districts where the elevation and climate make it possible for Europeans to reside permanently." My people have a long history of land ownership that stretches back almost a thousand years. In traditional Gikuyu culture, land rights were considered to be on the same level as human rights and the rights of a family.
In the 1950s, the British forced most of the Gikuyu people out of their homes and interned them in labor camps, barbed-wire villages and prisons. The British conducted "screenings" in order to determine the extent of the people's sympathies with resistance fighters, which amounted to torture in the form of castration, sodomy and amputations.
The Mau Mau resistance movement formed in 1950, calling themselves the "Kenya Land and Freedom Army". They sustained a powerful, massive opposition for a decade that eventually lead to the breakdown of British control and forged the road towards independence in 1963. They employed scare tactics, attacking whole families including farm animals and leaving a death charm for the other British households to see and fear. In this way, they pushed the British out of their settlements and eventually the country. The brutality of this conflict is not something easily shaken, nor should it be, from the consciousness of our culture. The bodies in my work are often wracked with the wounds of war and keep on despite missing or twisted limbs.
Returning to the land of our ancestors was only the beginning of recreating our identity not just as Gikuyu but as a united Kenyan people for the first time ever. I grew up in the 70s, 80s and early 90s in Kenya at a time when we were struggling with how to define ourselves relative to the recent violence and uprooting, the disconnect between traditions and British influence, and the rift between rural and urban living. My sister, brothers and I were raised as city kids, somewhat oblivious to the issues raised by the violent land conflicts and even the inevitable problems of ethnic and tribal divisions.
We lived in Nairobi but spent most of our weekends at relatives' houses upcountry. Although my father was a businessman and my mother was a nurse and pharmacy owner in the city, both of my parents came from farming families in Nyeri. Visits to my grandmothers' houses were filled with sweet, mundane activities. I'd pass the time hanging out by the cowshed, picking berries and vegetables and wandering barefoot around the hilly countryside. I learned to differentiate crops and grow them and to drink raw cow's milk. My siblings and I would brush up on Kikuyu since the language in the city was eroding and morphing with English.
Always the healer, my mother was schooled in nursing and midwifery and understands plants and earth and how to nurture vegetation. Through her, I've inherited a deep love of growing things. So, in fact, my whole fascination with the mark as an organic, alchemic eruption as opposed to a choreographed notation stems from her influence. My obsession with ink, solvents, liquids, paper and surfaces comes from my belief in their live and organic qualities as well as their associations with elements like blood, saliva, milk, tears, sweat and urine.
How does one talk about cultural decapitation or historical uprooting? How does one capture the moment after a limb has been severed or a Nation's heart has been broken? How does one mix a salve to heal and protect a wound and how does one create an antivenom to twist the fate of someone who has been mistreated and maligned?
Using land, either as subject matter or material, in my work is a way for me to connect to and re-draw power from the fertile land of my childhood and to better understand the impact of my own relocation. The topography of my work is related to that of my physical travels. The colors I use and the surfaces I create, the interplay of form and texture that I work with, all come from places I've seen and touched and remember with a heavy heart and are a record of the history of the land and the struggle of my people.
Like in the short-lived 70's television show 'Fantastic Journey,' I left my home in Kenya on an adventure to seek out my fortune and found myself trapped on an island. Returning home from this (mostly metaphorical) isle has became a whole entangled process that is much more complicated than I ever imagined. They say that the Natives of New York, for the unfair trade of this land, put a curse on the city so that those who come here are never able to leave. New York is certainly a fertile land for growing art, but my work still draws seeds and sustenance from far away memories and the incredibly vibrant experiences of my childhood.
For unfortunate reasons, I haven't been home in many years, so my childhood thoughts and memories have been my lifeline, blending fact with fiction, powerful dreams, reflections and fabrications. It is easy for me to romanticize this time, especially because I was a child and life was full of make-believe, idle hours and wandering. This makes for a much richer map than the rational grid of adulthood. Also, as a creative person, I relate to the powerful sense of place and history, the respect for land and nature, and the magic, mythology and storytelling of my people. The land is teaming with legends -- the Creator who dwells in eternal brightness on the Mountain, the ghosts, the ogres, the animal spirits, the warriors from afar, the river monsters and far away ocean genies. These characters and tales help to communicate the true essence of the place I'm torn from and what it feels like to be from there.