Wajukuu Art Project is a community-based organization situated in the Lunga-Lunga neighborhood of the Mukuru slum, near Nairobi, Kenya. Founded in 2004 by a group of young artists, the initiative was born with the aim of providing the new generations with a space for self-expression and emancipation from a condition of grave environmental degradation and social violence.
The Mukuru slum sits on a hillside below the factories that make up the industrial area of Nairobi. A nearby dumpsite draws youth from the slum, who are largely shut out of employment in the factories that pollute their community. Scavenging for items to sell is one of the few economic opportunities available to them. Many eventually turn to crime and selling drugs. Violence and sexual assault are all too common, jeopardizing their well-being and claiming the lives of many young victims.
Through joyful resistance, Wajukuu Art Project found a way to emerge from this dire situation and provide a better future for their community, particularly for younger generations. The aim of their project is to create governance through art practices and cultural activities, to provide a space for critical reflection and to revalue traditional forms of knowledge, without necessarily complying with Western cultural values.
The very name “Wajukuu” (literally “grandchildren”) originates from the Swahili proverb “Majuto ni mjukuu huja baadae,” which translates into English as “The actions of our parents and grandparents are felt by the next generation.” For however severely the choices our predecessors may have impacted on local communities—and the world at large—Wajukuu is committed to opening up new, virtuous paths for the generations to come, promoting the sustainable development of Mukuru (figs. 1-2).
We had a very interesting and warmhearted conversation with Shabu Mwangi and Ngugi Waweru, founders of the project, who shared some insights into their work as artists and many different initiatives that Wajukuu has been promoting. Among them are the Kids Club, the Slum Art Festival, and Documentary Nights.
Wajukuu Art Project is a lumbung member for documenta fifteen.
Chiara Borgonovo: We read a little bit about the history of Wajukuu Art Project and how the initiative was born. We know that you started as a collective of artists and then became a registered community-based organization, which works a lot with your local community in the Lunga-Lunga slum. We wanted to ask you about the other members of your group—who are they, and what was your first project?
Shabu Mwangi: My name is Shabu Mwangi, I'm a visual artist based in Nairobi and at the moment I am the director of Wajukuu Art Project. I'd like to start with the genesis of the project and how we came together. It began in 2003, but we officially registered the group in 2007; at the time, I was the oldest, being seventeen years old. The initiative came out of a need to survive: working individually as artists was difficult at that moment. So, since we lived in the same neighborhood with other members, we saw the opportunity of coming together and forming a collective. The first project we developed was the Kids Club (figs. 3-4). The idea for this initiative came to us when we were given a small space in our neighborhood to practice our art; however, kids were always coming out of curiosity to see what was happening in this space. In most cases, we found ourselves having a lot of kids crowding at the door, but since that was the only source of light we could use in the space, we were chasing them away. But in the end, we sat down as a collective and we decided to start the Kids Club. Only a few of us were willing to facilitate, because we didn't have experience working with kids. What could we do with kids? This project was about providing them with a space where they could reflect, express, and where they could be themselves. That was the first activity we did together as a collective. The other activity we were always engaged in was individual painting. Everyone would do their job, not concerned about our community or its future, or about giving back. But after starting the Kids Club, we became really concerned about our community and realized that there was another way, that there had to be a shift from being individual artists to agents of social change (fig. 5).
CB: We know that Kids Club is still very active and that you promote a lot of activities for children, which usually focus on the enhancement of your cultural heritage. For instance, you have oral storytelling, mask-making laboratories, and you also play local instruments (fig. 6). Is this also a way of educating and caring for your community?
SM: Yes, when we began, kids were like the bridge for their community: they're the ones who brought to us the concept of community and understanding different perspectives. You know, art is something which, if you are not an art lover, or if you don't know anything about that, sometimes you will never understand it. The majority of the people living in the community did not or had never encountered art. So, what happened is that we really had a backlash when we started the collective, and thanks to our kids the attitude towards art changed with time. Parents started accepting that their kids were participating in our projects and coming into our space. We try to incorporate multidisciplinary activities in our program, so that we can be more effective in the community. For instance, we now incorporate dance, and music performances (fig. 7). Also, as a way of involving parents and teenagers, we organize Documentary Nights, where we screen different movies and then discuss them with the community reflecting on the subject that we have screened, which usually affects our context. Afterwards, we try to adapt what we have learned from a certain documentary and moderate a discussion, which ultimately is really enriching for every participant. Now I will introduce my colleague: his name is Ngugi Waweru.
CB: Thank you for joining us. We were discussing the genesis of your group and the work that you're currently doing in your community. We just talked about the Documentary Nights. It's inspiring to see how your projects have expanded from the kids to their parents, as a way of involving the whole community.
Marina Donina: Was this one of the tactics you employed to get new members, specifically adult members, who could help you develop more projects, ideas, and the community itself?
SM: Yes, that was one way. We knew that we couldn’t get everyone to volunteer and then welcome them with empty hands. This is why we allowed to be part of the collective only those who really wanted to. Since the beginning, many people have left: it was not their calling, not their field, but for us it is our life. It's the only thing we really see for ourselves. For those who stayed, we know we share the same core values. That's why Wajukuu is a family: it is a place where we do whatever comes our way as a collective, not as individuals.
Ngugi Waweru: Also, a lot of new members usually came from the Kids Club: among those people who grew up in Wajukuu, many then wanted to join the collective. So, we normally get new members from the Kids Club, once children become young adults.
CB: How do you support all of these initiatives? Do you receive funding from other institutions? Do you have the support of other organizations, from outside of your local context?
SM: When we started, for the first ten to twelve years, we relied only on our art. There was a percent that went to the group. That was what we survived on. But around seven years ago, we met an organization, a foundation from the US, called the Lambert Foundation. They were funding one of the organizations that we have here, and we were hired as consultants to paint murals. They met us through this program and showed interest in supporting our initiative. Since then, they have funded some of our programs, such as the Kids Club and the Documentary Nights. We also try our very best to invite friends and to ask who would like to work with Wajukuu. We are always open for new friends to join us; that's how our collective operates. We don't have a permanent financial source to rely on. We live by the day, but we are happy.
NW: The advantage is that we are not a foreign organization operating in different places. We grew up here, we started here. So even without funding, we will still be here, but we look forward to having more funds to support our projects. We have only had one Lambert Foundation as a long-term donor.
SM: They are also playing a major role in D, from our side. Certainly, documenta couldn’t fund everything, we understood that and knew we had to look for other sources of funding to fill in the gaps. However, we are grateful that the Lambert Foundation came in and covered most of the administrative costs for all programs that are now operating.
MD: Moving to another topic, you're quite active online promoting your initiatives, especially on Facebook. However, we would like to know how you promote your events and initiatives offline. Particularly, within your community, in your city, in your area. How do you engage new people, new kids, new families?
SM: Locally, in our neighborhood, we are known because of our kids, as they go to different schools and they pass information to different people. At the same time, we do a lot of murals around the community, so people know us through this practice (fig. 8). Also, Documentary Nights is another program by which we get a lot of people from all around the community. Most of the events, such as the Slum Art Festival that we had in December, brought us a lot of publicity. As we have said, we depend on ourselves sometimes, we don’t have funds, so the more publicity we get, the more people we get involved. If we look into our future plans, we think of expanding and having a farm. That's one way to cater to some needs which come our way as we are growing.
NW: We've been more active on our social media platforms since last year. Past years have been slow due to the lack of equipment and challenges with an internet connection. But during this recent period of being active online, we received positive feedback, even from people who are not in Mukuru. Mostly after we had the Slum Art Festival, we saw people starting to gain interest in our projects (figs. 9, 10).
CB: Speaking of which, how did you move to the international scene? For instance, how did you meet ruangrupa and how did this collaboration with documenta start?
SM: Maybe I will talk about ruangrupa, and then Ngugi can add more. ruangrupa first came to Kenya with the Lambert Foundation, a few years before documenta; on this occasion, they visited our collective and had fun during Kids Club, playing with the kids. Back then, we didn't know they’d be curating documenta. After about two years, ruangrupa contacted us with the information that they wanted us to be part of documenta, but we did not know much about this event. So we were wondering, “What will we do for documenta?” These were important questions, but we didn’t want to ask, you know? When someone tells you something, you want to be polite. So we were like: “Wow, we are in documenta, but what will we do?” But after a while, we got the concept. We are artists: it's easy to digest and then create something out of it. [Talking to Ngugi] Maybe you can add more on our global visibility.
NW: Yes, like Shabu said, our connection with documenta started off with the Lambert Foundation. Michelle from the Foundation introduced us to ruangrupa and after their visit, ruangrupa started following our activities on social media and then contacted us during the lockdown. That's when we started having conversations with them on Zoom, and one day they asked if we would have liked to join the lumbung network. We started by joining lumbung members who are expected to take part in documenta; this is how we got involved with documenta. The interesting thing about ruangrupa is that they started like us, organically, because we both began our projects at a very young age. In a way, we also come from similar contexts: Indonesia and Kenya share the same challenges. When we heard the story of ruangrupa and saw their development, it gave us great hope for the future of Wajukuu.
Regarding our international visibility, I would say that our individual work as artists has played an important role: when artists from the collective say that they belong to Wajukuu, this helps us in terms of promotion and visibility. We are a collective, but people also act individually, especially since we are at different levels when it comes to art. As Shabu said, it is very challenging—I know you understand.
SM: But also very satisfying.
MD: Do have any kind of strategy about sustaining your projects after participating in such a big and international event like documenta? Do you think it will influence your practice?
SM: We have a strategy and we are putting more in place, because we will be on an international stage, and there will be many things to do: emails to reply to, bills to think about. When it comes to sustainability and what we will do after documenta, it has always been our dream to have a community farm. We hope that at some point we will achieve this—maybe in two or three years. Through this, we know, the cycle of soil is the same: you look after it, and then it looks after you. If we have a farm, we will look after it, then it will look after us and our families. This is our number one strategy for sustaining ourselves after documenta.
CB: This idea sounds very much in line with the concept of lumbung, which is basically to store resources for the community. In general, your work and your practice really reflect the values of lumbung: generosity, humor, local anchoring, independence, regeneration, transparency and frugality. So, if we may ask, do you already know what will be your contribution to documenta fifteen?
SM: Of course, one contribution will be ourselves and secondly the installations we are currently working on.
NW: I will produce an installation using knives. The inspiration for this piece comes from the Kikuyu proverb, “Kahiu kohiga munu gatemaga o mwene,” which means: “A sharp knife cuts the owner.” The concept behind my work is a reflection on our modern obsession with development: as humans we are in a constant rush to develop, to make our lives better, but in this process we carelessly dispose of the world like it is our home and we repress our humanity. What remains, in the end, is just a body devoid of a soul. In other words, when you have a knife and you want it to work better and faster, you sharpen it, but at the same time you consume it. Its blade becomes thinner and thinner until you have no knife anymore. This works as a metaphor for what is happening to us as humans: we are in a rush to be better, but in the end we are left with only our bodies; we become just empty walking bodies.
SM: This is one idea for our contribution, whereas another concept will revolve around cages. At the moment, we have only created a small-scale model of the installation that we will present at documenta. To me, the cage represents the education system in Kenya and how it has been designed in a way so that once you are born, the only way to make it in life is through education. They instill a fear in humans that makes you believe that you have to go through a system to be successful. But is this system providing the same education that they get? When I said them, I mean, the West. Our education comes from the West. They actually replaced our education with their education. And this is the system that is ultimately training us as individuals, as human beings, as subjects. In our country, there are many cases of pupils dropping out of school and this happens out of frustration. We are putting a lot of pressure on kids, we are not letting them be. So, the cage will represent the educational system: while you're inside, you can see outside, but you are not yet free, you’re in a cage. I will have four to five figure forms that will look like melting bodies. Then I’ll have different newspapers from around the world, highlighting how education is affecting cultural ways and also our way of being as humans. We are losing our freedom, because of education. I mean, education can be good when you use it in a way that it might impact societies, but at the same time, it is making us more and more “programmed.” We as humans are mysterious, and we should always remain mysterious. We don't need to be programmed. Education doesn't leave room for self-expression: you have to follow what is prescribed, and this is really draining our humanity.
Moreover, we are working on another installation which will consist of a bed made of rubber bands cut out from old car tires. When I was growing up, we had beds with these bands as strings. We are working around the idea of home and what defines it. For me, home is a place where I can rest, but to others home is something different. With this work, we want to portray how dehumanized Africa has become. You can only know that we have been dehumanized if you travel, otherwise you think everything is okay, but everything is not okay. We are questioning big global democracy. Do they really mean what they preach? Does democracy have the same meaning in our context as it does in the West? It's political.
We will have these three installations and also a sort of tunnel that before you reach the installations you pass through and enter in a kind of a trance, which takes you from Europe to our homes. Because in this tunnel, you will hear all kinds of noises we hear on our streets every day and then, when you reach the other end of the tunnel, then you will meet this silent space with our installations.
CB: So, you will bring us to your dimension, your perspective.
NW: Yes, we bring you to our home through a sound landscape.
SM: You should come for our “pre–exhibition,” it’s happening in March.
NW: Yes, we will have an exhibition in March, where we will present the installations that we will bring to Kassel. We thought of sharing what we are going to do in Europe with our community.
SM: That's one side of what we're going to do, we will also have music and storytelling.
MD: Going back to the context of your community, do you receive any proposals from people other than your usual collaborators? I mean, especially the people who take part in your events? Do you have this kind of connection and dialogue with your audience?
SM: What we do is that before we organize something like a festival, we invite other collectives in the community who are specializing in other areas. For example, in Wajukuu, we don't have any musicians, whereas there are people who do music in our community and they can give us very good advice on how to organize events involving music. So, we normally invite them and partner with them, because we don't want to represent something in which we don't have experience, but, at the same time, we want to give a platform to what is happening in our community. We invite professionals or people who are doing things in that area, so that we can talk and plan together. The problem comes to the budget part, because you will invite people, but at the same time, where there is a lack of resources, as soon as someone has a resource, everyone wants to get access to it. So, you invite people, but they often expect to achieve their long-term goals all at once. You may invite someone and then tell them “let's do the budget for this area,” and then the budget you get turns out to be even more than the funds we receive from documenta. Some people can dream, you know, and it's normal to dream. In any case, we are always open to inviting people and collaborating from within and outside our community.
This interview was conducted on January 26, 2022, via Zoom.
Lawrence (Shabu) Mwangi lives and works in Mukuru Slum (Nairobi). Feeling that he had something meaningful to share with society, he joined the world of art in 2003 and became a founding member of Wajukuu Art Projects in 2004.
To him, art became a window on the world, a tool to give deeper meaning to everything he observed, as well as a form of resistance on behalf of a minority that exists in the shadows and at the edges of the majority. Most of Shabu’s ideas derive from the view of the frustrating inequality that deeply affects the context in which he lives and from a reflection on the widespread condition of isolation resulting from existing social and cultural barriers.
“Scavenging for our identities from information that we have been fed by the people in power,” he claims, “makes us forget the purpose of revolution and why we should change as a society.”
Shabu strives to analyze social behavior and human interaction; with his work, he advocates for a culture of unity and emphasizes the power of empathy as a form of resistance to the greed and individualism pervading our modern society.
Ngugi Waveru was born in Nakuru, but grew up in Nairobi, where he currently lives and works. He started practicing art as a self-taught artist, learning from his friends, who had graduated from an art college. Ngugi's practice focuses mainly on woodcut prints and mixed medium paintings on canvas. The recurring subjects of his prints are human figures stitched together by ropes, an allusion to those invisible forces that in many situations restrain our will to act. Ropes and stitches also appear in Ngugi's paintings, which are characterized by thick layers of paint, rough surfaces, and dull colors evoking a sense of struggle. His works highlight the innate strength of individuals and their power to overcome insurmountable odds in life.
To Ngugi, growing up in one of the biggest informal settlements in Nairobi, art was a form of self-affirmation and an alternative to drug abuse, crime, and unemployment. To promote this vision, he and other young artists decided to create a collective, Wajukuu Art Project.
As of today, Ngugi is an active member of Wajukuu and teaches art to children and young kids in his community, passing on his passion and enthusiasm to the new generation. In 2015, he placed second in the Manjano Art Competition.
Chiara Borgonovo lives and works in Milan, Italy. Trained as an art historian, she is a researcher and curator with a particular interest in visual studies and socially engaged artistic and curatorial practices. In Milan, she works as an external collaborator at Fondazione Prada’s Research and Publications department and as a teaching assistant for the course in Iconology and Visual Culture at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC), Milan. She earned an MA in Art History from UCSC, Milan, and is currently pursuing a Master of Advanced Studies in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). In Zurich, she actively collaborates with the independent curatorial platform OnCurating Project Space.
Rosela del Bosque lives and works in Mexicali, Baja California (México), as a curator, cultural practitioner, and researcher. Her interests focus on the local context and entwine empathy, memory, historical revisionism, and reconstructing more-than-human relations in the Colorado river delta landscape. She studied art history and curatorial studies at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla. She has completed courses in curatorial practice and contemporary art at Central Saint Martins and Università di Siena. She has collaborated in volunteer programs focused on art education with Museo Jumex and curatorial research with MCASD (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego). She has co-curated projects at La Nana ConArte (Mexico City), with the curatorial collective base_arriba (Mexicali), Reforma 917 (Puebla), and OnCurating Project Space (Zurich). She is currently an associate curator at Planta Libre (gallery and project space) and pursuing the Master of Advanced Studies in Curating at Zurich University of the Arts.
Marina Donina lives and works in Zurich. She earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and is currently pursuing a Master of Advanced Studies in Curating at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), for which she explores process-based art. She has worked as a curator and production manager at various cultural projects in Shanghai, China, and is currently engaged in several events by Compost Network at the OnCurating Project Space.
Lotte Van Ermengem lives and works in Zurich. She earned an MA in Art History at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, where she was born and lived for most of her life. Currently, she is co-curating an ongoing project called “Terra Omnium.” The focus of this project centers on sustainable and upcycling art practices. Currently, she is also engaged in the exhibitionary project, Compost—The Open Bin (Composting Knowledge), at the OnCurating Project Space. While working on these projects, she is pursuing a Master of Advanced Studies in Curating at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).