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Nairobi memories

10 Jan

I was recently to Nairobi for the second time in 2019 to implement sensitisation activities for a large scale scientific study of lung health among 5-18 year olds in two different parts of the city. After delivering workshops and refining our strategy, we tested our new methods for informing the public about our study at a large scale event outside a school in Mukuru. The event was called Santa in the Ghetto and for this American who has been dampened by English winters, it could not have felt less christmassy. It was hot with eye watering bright sunshine which charged us all up with much need vitamin D. I was the visual arts lead but leading was hardly required as the team is a seasoned group of professional artists who regularly teach art within the community. We created a large mural in three parts. (see below). The other activities included games, song and dance, theatre (including a puppet I created with Matt Smith) and a football game. On top of this we were capably entertained throughout by several MC’s and music. It was a fantastic experience and made all the better because the children engaged in activities with such infectious enthusiasm and joy. It is also so refreshing to see kids embracing the visual arts without some of the caution, self consciousness and timidity that I have often found teaching in America and the UK.

Between a very busy schedule of workshops, meetings and inevitably fraught travel, I tried to get some drawing in. These drawings come from searing images that I saw mostly during traveling to and from Bidi primary where the workshops took place. There is so much human traffic in Nairobi and such a buzz of activity everywhere. Traveling on the train to work the other day I observed how closed in and boring streets are in England. Few people are out and about but equally, all commerce (for obvious reasons) happens indoors. In Nairobi, it is all largely in sprawling outdoor market places which to these eyes, inevitably seems fantastically vibrant. People and even animals seem in perpetual movement, moving to and from places I could never know as a passenger in a car, disappearing quickly into new unknown vistas and witnessing people whose fate will briefly hold my attention.

Drawing is a way of fixing these observations and even subjects. Arresting a moment but not freezing it. My visual memory has become a reliable storehouse of visual imagery which can flood back. It is the act of drawing which is the trigger. Drawing, in fact, seems to be like a transcript of memory. Like the scratchy marks of a polygraph machine, it records things we couldn’t possibly communicate or even know in conventional language. For this reason, drawing, more than photography, becomes a psychic portrait of place. It is individual and idiosyncratic because of its facture but it is also a tangible record of something seen. Unlike the photograph which is a verifiable depiction of place, a drawing is the depiction of filtered experience and as such it invites participation in that vision. It is a human document and it has the capacity to connect to wider realms of experience. The success or failure of a drawing is not in its depictive accuracy but rather in its ability to summon up the intimacy of vision that inspired the drawing. This can be achieved in many ways, often through the open, unfinished marks of the drawing. IMG_3230IMG_3703IMG_5158IMG_4706I hope that these images capture something of my own experience in Nairobi but also point to a more universal understanding of this complex planet’s inhabitants. So much is etched on to our faces. Enjoy!

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2 Responses to “Nairobi memories”

  1. Ian Holland January 10, 2020 at 1:53 pm #

    Great work as always, really interesting about what you said about English and American children approaching art in a self-conscious way, I found this when trying to do some art with my Niece who was really scared of making a mistake.

    It’s good to see you have had the opportunity to visit such an interesting Country.

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