ICSAEE KENYA page two
Alan Donovan’s house is an extraordinary enclave of cultural conservation and a beautiful living museum, architecturally resonant of pan-African adobe styles. It overlooks a narrow migration corridor of Savannah through which wildlife struggle annually against ever encroaching settlement on their journeys to and from the central plains. Zebra are visible from the house’s terraces, yet only a couple of hundred meters behind this idyllic compound is a main artery route into Nairobi with all the accompanying detritus of human economic activity. This juxtaposition brought the environmental tensions of this densely populated region into stark focus. Mr Donovan, an American, has been described as having, ‘… made an unprecedented contribution to the promotion of arts and culture in Africa and throughout the world’ (Michigan State University Press). Entrepreneur and fashion jewellery designer, exporter and co-founder of African Heritage, the continent’s first pan-African gallery, he is an author, cultural commentator and life long collector of African art. His house, ‘the most photographed house in Africa’, and collection are a testament to his obsessive hunt for and preservation of African heritage. He took us round his collection, in small groups, patiently. Every room is lavishly populated with the art works amassed over forty years, mostly irreplaceable, and each work - many, many hundreds of them; ceramic, sculpture, vessel, textile, furniture, jewellery, of every conceivable media and function; narrative, ritual, aesthetic - has its story, is intimate to him. He talked and I listened, his elderly presence unassuming yet shrewd and commanding. He spoke with the authority of hard-won personal experience and his narrative was a powerful testament to his journey of discovery and preservation. A tiny part of his perspective was unveiled: the big picture, with which he is so intimately acquainted, of African art and its inexorable degeneration under colonial exploitation, slavery and various forms of cultural suppression through many generations. I found his mixture of dignity and unsentimental sadness, or resignation, at the enormity of the loss of African culture over the centuries very moving.
Gakoigo pottery village in Muranga district, formerly known as ‘Fort Hall’, was a key moment in the Symposium. We rolled up in two 1980s cranky Isuzu busses, ten kilometres down a red earth road from the main highway, to a small settlement of low cement and wooden buildings, some with a faded colonial air, lining a red dirt street - the pottery village - where we were besieged by many barefoot laughing children. We were introduced to several of the women potters who had agreed to demonstrate for us by prior arrangement. They subsist through creating utilitarian earthen cookery wares for a few hundred Kenya Shillings each; wares that are under on-going threat from more affordable, disposable mass produced cooking utensils. These pots are round-based, generous bellied forms that the potters soft-coil build, bent at the waist, in bright cotton skirts and head scarves, stooped to the ground. With sinuous dexterity, they rhythmically shuffle round the stationary forms, which evolve under their brilliant touch. Melding and controlling, they coax the coarse, unstable clay with astonishing rapidity. The internationally renowned potter Magdalene Odundo was among our party, and, much moved, she was engagingly given a coiling lesson by Margaret Wanjiro Gikonyo. Magdalene, under the clicking cameras of our observing party, to the amusement of observing potters, and accompanied by an insistent background prattle of excited children - a chaotic scene - promptly pulled me in, saying ‘Gareth you have to handle this clay!’ and, within a very few minutes’ exposure to Margaret’s patient supervision and intelligent hands, I was coiling more effectively than I had ever done before. Much celebratory ululation accompanied the lighting of the open straw and brush firing that the women potters had prepared for us, the raw work intricately interlocked on a brush wood base and enclosed in a thick covering of straw - continually fed for the duration of the firing. Sweets were handed to clamouring children, and then we had to take our leave to waiting buses, with waves and smiles on both sides, it seems before we had even arrived. Magdalene and I took away a great deal more than the pots we purchased from Margaret and remain grateful to her for her generosity of spirit. This was an affecting moment, a privilege.
Our final visit was to Wamumu Children’s Rehabilitation Centre. Edward Mwaura Ndekere, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, initiated an outreach component to the symposium using ceramics, specifically kiln building, as a tool of rehabilitation for the juvenile offenders who are sent there. Wamumu is a last chance for young offenders before prison where the residents, often street kids from profoundly challenging backgrounds, are given various life skills. Ceramics had not featured on the curriculum before ISCAEE and Mwaura’s intention was that the Symposium could begin a process that fosters a sense of self worth in the children as well as providing a possible low-cost form of income through future tile production (clay is an abundant resource in the area). The prototype kiln proved to be a wonderful organic structure consisting of a clay and straw mulch caked over a loose dome made from interlocked reject pots donated by the Earthworks Pottery Company of Nairobi – based on their own home made design. We arrived at the culmination of the week long project in which ISCAEE students worked alongside Wamumu youngsters, a mutually enlightening experience. We were treated to a rap performance by two teenage Wamumu residents, attesting to the value of Wamumu and their desire to turn over a new leaf. This event hopefully represented the beginning of lasting ceramics activity at Wamumu, an ambition close to Edward Mwaura Ndekere’s heart, and facilitated by ISCAEE.
Bus rides through insane every-man-for-himself traffic along roads, now silk smooth, now almost impassable; improvised roadside brush and corrugated iron shacks and market stalls, the informal economy, where everything from furniture to brassieres to condemned Land Rovers is sold; hawkers at the bus windows toting fruit, sweets, vegetables, DVDs, beads; passing glimpses of desperate, hopeless poverty and extravagant wealth, a stark disparity; street children collecting discarded plastic bottles; improvised roadside nurseries of seedlings on scraps of fertile ground, immaculately kept; car washes from roadside pools; rain-thrown natural Rothko paintings of red earth back-splashed up against every external wall and endless kilometres of hard-beaten ochre paths at the roadside from the myriads of pedestrians, the innumerable, hard working population going about their business. And always there was red earth: iron, Kenya’s predominant element.
ISCAEE Kenya was an intense, sobering and inspiring experience. It handsomely fulfilled its central aim as a melting pot of cultural exchange and provided an insight into a breadth of ceramic endeavour that exists in the centres across the globe that we each represented. But the keenest insight was African. The symposium afforded a glimpse of the sheer weight of obstacles, be they economic, geographical or practical that some of our African colleagues have to overcome simply in order to get things made; the overwhelming obstacles to ceramic activity posed by an economy pared to its essentials. This was sobering, prompting much personal reflection on the nature of the energy-rich, profoundly wasteful and self-obsessed economies of the ‘developed’ countries. We do not know what hardship is. At a personal level I found the trip more deeply stirring to my spirit than I could have possibly anticipated. ISCAEE’s ethos is long-term and refreshing. Under the enlightened stewardship of a few passionate educators, ISCAEE sows seeds. Long may they germinate and flourish.