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SELL THE VISION Eric Otieno Sumba on Wajukuu Art Project at “documenta fifteen”

Ngugi Waweru / Wajukuu Art Project, “Kahiu kogi gatemaga mwene,” 2022

Ngugi Waweru / Wajukuu Art Project, “Kahiu kogi gatemaga mwene,” 2022

Never before have so many artists presented their work in Kassel as at this year’s Documenta – and rarely has the discussion of Documenta been steeped in such controversy. In stark contrast to the presence of the debate surrounding “documenta fifteen” in the media is the extent to which the artistic positions as such were discussed. The first part of our retrospective series “Documenta Debrief” therefore focuses on the art itself. At the invitation of the editors, five authors present the collectives and contributions they felt were particularly relevant. With a series of installations at Documenta Halle, Wajukuu Art Project from Nairobi used vernacular architectural structures and everyday objects to create an experiential space. In his review of the collective’s work, Eric Otieno Sumba highlights issues of cultural translation as well the material implications of art production. As the writer points out, the project’s artistic process focuses on the local Nairobi community’s collective well-being and is informed by the group’s consistent commitment to people.

In a Documenta that critics have described as colorful, blunt, controversial, convivial, and even quirky, Wajukuu Art Project’s installation Killing Fear of the Unknown (2022) tacitly evokes existentialism and violence. The ten-member collective’s choice of materials, techniques of obfuscation, and expulsion of natural light coalesce to create a sinister aura. They barricade the glass “walls” of Documenta Halle with rusty Mabati, a building material commonly used in the Mukuru slum, located between Nairobi’s airport and industrial area. In reference to the vernacular architecture of Maasai housing, the meandering tunnel that leads to the installation is covered by thin dark-brown reeds.

As a continuation of the architectural references outside, Joseph Waweru Wangui’s sculpture Msingi wa nyumbani (Foundation of the home, 2022) resembles the incomplete rectangular foundation of a one-room house with two layers of bricks in place. The wooden frame of a bed, with black rubber strips stretched over it like slats, occupies most of the house. The loose ends of these strips hang down from the frame, forming coils on the floor, filling the margin between the bed and the walls-to-be. In Shabu Mwangi’s Wrapped Reality (2022) close by, an oblate globe hangs from the ceiling. Suspended at its core, two figures are visible through the globe’s surface – a rough, loose mesh of twigs, metal, and wire. Orange-hued sand covers most of the rectangular reflective surface below the globe, save for a small oval section at the middle. Magnetic tape from a compact cassette dangles from the globe, adding a gentle dynamism to the hearth-like centerpiece of Wajukuu’s installation, which also includes a smaller upright sculpture, paintings, and a documentary film.

A contradiction in Killing Fear of the Unknown is that the installation only avoids misrepresenting the collective’s process-based artistic practice by over-contextualizing it for a largely Western, and likely white, Documenta audience. Though site-specific activations in Mukuru form a larger part of Wajukuu’s practice, the by-products of their socially embedded practices – the artworks – are emphasized in Kassel via the immersive, yet slightly ambiguous, architectural reference to Mukuru. This ambiguity stems from the fact that the stunningly precise re-creation of the interior of their multiuse studio space inside the Documenta Halle was largely taken at face value, that is, as a gesture of “authenticity” rather than as a hard-won artistic contribution. [1]

Whether this (possibly strategic) ambiguity is positive or negative is inconsequential for the work that the installation does; so too is the role of representation in artistic practice more generally. In fact, some works in Kassel do contain a wealth of material references that point to the context of their emergence in a more abstract way. In Ngugi Waweru’s Kahiu kogi gatemaga mwene (A sharp knife might cut its owner, 2022) for instance, one encounters worn-out knives, bicycle chains, and corrugated iron. The knives’ blades have been whetted by men who regularly visit middle- and low-income residential urban areas in Kenya with a pedaled sharpening machine in tow. Here, the reappropriation of actual household items infuses a charming, crowdsourced element to the work that gives it a distinct texture free from clichéd “slum aesthetics.”

A common refrain amongst Western critics of "documenta fifteen" has been thinly veiled irritation at the omnipresence of so-called Kitsch in Kassel. [2] Many simply reject the fact that it is any given artist’s prerogative to reintroduce society’s waste into the art world’s lucrative value chain in the service of survival (or the “circular economy,” depending on who is asking). Nevertheless, the discordance in Killing Fear of the Unknown is embedded in its material reality. Like painting does in Western art histories, scrap metal, old tires, worn-out knives, and bicycle chains heave under the weight of decades of art histories on the African continent. In this genre of sculpture, it is difficult to break new ground – assuming that new ground must be broken. Sometimes, an artwork simply has to keep the artist occupied, then sell.

There are ways to introduce foreign audiences with little context to “new” artistic practices. If there were a checklist, Killing Fear of the Unknown would tick most boxes. The installation is prominently located at a key Documenta venue. Additionally, it is aesthetically distinct, but still courts Western aesthetic norms. However, once Wajukuu’s work is parsed from prescriptive projections on their art, their cyclical, redistributive, and socially embedded practice emerges in their choice and use of materials, and ultimately, in how they conceive of their role as artists.

Wajukuu artists are seemingly more preoccupied with creating and with the (pre)conditions of their creation than with the linear temporality of art history. In as much as they often nod toward the timeless, reified artwork that can be invited into the art institution, they do not seem to mind being guests, for the radicality of their practice goes beyond the institution. Mirroring Chinua Achebe’s sentiments in a 1980 conversation with James Baldwin, Wajukuu are committed to art that is committed to people. [3] The collective’s main vision, according to their website, is to create employment through the creation and sale of artworks and to create spaces where children (Wajukuu is Kiswahili for grandchildren, or other relations of the second generation) can express themselves creatively. The limited space in this vision for anything other than the vision itself is evident.

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer. He is one of the contributors to African Artists: From 1882 to Now (2021) published by Phaidon and contributing editor at griotmag.

The second part of “Documenta Debrief,” which will be published online in November 2022, will focus on "documenta fifteen" as a Gesamtkonzept. Contributions of the invited authors will offer a multi-perspective, meta-analytical view on curatorial practices and the ways in which the media covered the event.

Image credit: Courtesy of documenta fifteen, photo: Nicolas Wefers


[1]In a “Post Documenta Artist Talk” on 13 October 13, 2022, two members of the collective reported that it took some negotiation to obtain clearance to build the tunnel without professional architectural guidance. The artists convinced the two firms that had been commissioned for construction to allow the structure to be built outside of construction norms and standards. Video of the talk is available from the Goethe-Institut Kenya,
[2]For examples, see: Volker Weiß, “Antisemitismus und Kitsch,” Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 23, 2022; Robin Detje, “Eine Bühne für uns Europäer?” , Die Zeit, June 27, 2022; Robert Misik, “Radical Kitsch”, Vernunft und Exstase, August 25, 2022.
[3]Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt, eds., Conversations with James Baldwin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 210-221.