PEACE BY PIECE: OUR BODIES BURNING FOR A BETTER KENYA
Body Mapping with Underground Artists for WAPI Peace Festival
21st – 26th January 2008, British Council, Nairobi
These are dark days in Kenya. Since the disputed elections on 27th December 2007, the country has seen levels of violence unprecedented since independence. Supporters of President Mwai Kibaki and his opponent Raila Odinga have rallied along tribal lines. Neighbours are attacking each other on grounds of tribal identity, and families with children are locked into their houses and burnt alive. Youth are allegedly being paid to kill and burn down houses, and tribally mixed marriages are breaking down or forced apart. To date, an estimated 1.200 people are dead and another 350.000 have fled their homes and find themselves in camps for displaced with nothing to fend for their families. It is not just about M. Kibaki and R.Odinga, not just about party politics. It is about deep-seated anger that has been simmering for decades. Foremost, there is anger about unequal land distribution along tribal lines – something that started in colonial times and continues to this day. The resulting economic disparities between different ethnic regions have reinforced tribal resentment and created hunger for revenge in a country that has one of the biggest gaps worldwide between rich and poor. There is also anger about voicelessness and hopelessness at a time where more Kenyans than ever had cast their votes, believing their opinions would finally count. It is now widely acknowledged that the elections were flawed, and the sense of being once again manipulated and abused, lied to and kept under is pervasive and particularly strong among the urban young and poor.
In this climate, Art2Be and the British Council offered young people in Nairobi a platform to express their anger and visions of empowerment and peace other than through violent rioting. A 3-day Body Mapping workshop hosted by the British Council and facilitated by Art2Be brought together 10 young graffiti and graphic artists to discuss, meditate and paint about their identity as Kenyans in the current political and social context. The workshop participants were already part of a movement of visual and verbal artists from the underground for whom the British Council offers a monthly forum – WAPI (Word and Pictures). This month’s event on the 26th of January was “The WAPI Peace Festival” - the ideal platform for the Body Mapping artists to bring their experiences and visions into the public light.
The workshop came to the participating artists as a relief and much longed-for opportunity for action. Like most of us during the weeks of violence, the artists felt powerless and ashamed of ‘not doing more about the situation’. The workshop was finally a place in which they could use their talents for the benefit of their country. As expected, the workshop days were filled with much discussion and soul-searching.
The group shared personal experiences from the post-election weeks and grappled with questions of identity and diversity not just ‘out there’ but also within the group, such as interactions and personal assumptions coloured by tribal and religious notions. We also made time for inner peace during daily meditations and visualization exercises.
Artistically, participants appreciated the opportunity to experiment with different media (dry, wet and spray paint) and to engage in a creative process that was structured and much slower than creating graffiti murals. At the end of the workshop, many commented on the stronger sense of belonging together as underground pioneers and shared ideas of how to continue working as a group. The wide media coverage of the workshop and Peace Festival, and the enthusiastic response by British Council staff further contributed to the artists’ confidence and sense of agency.
It was a bright sunny day as the 10 final paintings flanked the entrance to the British Council grounds, greeting the crowds of youth flocking from afar to take part in the festival. Life-size and explosively colourful, the impact of the Body Maps was powerful and gave viewers a myriad reflection of what it means to live as a Kenyan right now. What burns inside while the country goes up in flames, and what peace can look like when feelings of anger, fear, longing and passion unite creatively in new visions for Kenya. We are thankful for the wonderful spirit and boundless energy worked into these images and the many heartfelt conversations that took place in front of them during the Peace Festival. May Peace in Kenya be restored soon!