Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga: Art as an invitation for dialogue

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We met the Kenyan born Artist Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga at the October Gallery, at the opening of her second solo show in London. It is organized on the heels of a busy schedule, after Art Paris Art Fair and Frieze New York.

Her trademarks are large-scale sculptures made of steel sheets – called “Mabati” in Swahili. Working in symbiosis with Nature, she leaves the sheets exposed to the elements. The rain and the sun, the heat and cold profoundly alter the texture and the look of the sheets, providing Gakunga with the raw material for her Art works. She is still amazed by this seeming alchemy and says what she has learnt over the years is “to see”.

What you will see at the October Gallery are her new sculptures and her ethereal paintings made with the same materials. If you look closer still, you will see her invitation to see beyond the walls and to start the dialogue as she explains further in the interview below:

Art work by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga
Left: Jioni – Evening, 2015, Right: Machweo – Late Evening, 2015, Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga

Hello, after a first solo exhibition in 2013, you are returning to the October Gallery with a new exhibition “Lets talk about it”, that questions our individual histories. I would like to know how your own heritage informs your creative process.

I was born in Gacharage, a small rural village, in Kenya, outside Nairobi, where I spent the early years of my life. My mother taught at the local school, my grandmother would look after me. However, she didn’t ‘baby-sit’ me in the western sense of watching me inside the house all day; everywhere she went – to her garden or the farm, to pick coffee – I went along with her. Thus, although we never called it ‘art,’ I was introduced to art at a very young age. The village women would paint their homes with clay, construct granaries, weave baskets, and make nearly everything else they needed from string: from the light mũkanda rope that girls skip with, to the strong-as-steel mũhĩndo rope for carrying water or tethering the family goats. I was introduced to the practical side of making things, and I made all my own skipping ropes from an early age. For me, art was an activity and was always fun.

The transformation of materials considered, as waste, into a medium of communication has been a leading theme in your creative work both during the last & current exhibition. Can you tell us why?

In my creative work, I use sheet metal, known in Swahili as Mabati. It is ubiquitous in Kenya. It is used mainly for roofing materials and walls. Sheet metal is particularly associated with Mabati Women’s Groups of the ’60s. These grass roots groups organized in order to improve their communities, by upgrading the roofs of their homes using sheet metal. I observed the success of their efforts, the harvesting of water from the new roofs and the consequent ageing of the material itself. I mirror these effects in my artistic process that weathers the surfaces of the materials.

In your new work, you have pushed new boundaries, introduced new materials that are mixed with the original one; mabati? Is that a metaphor for our cultural experiences, where we are borrowing from other cultures and creating something new and unique?

Growing up in Gacharage, Kenya, I learned how to be creative using any local materials that were available. This was also an early lesson in seeking alternative materials and techniques, and flowing from one technique to another as the creative process demanded.

In my new works, I have continued with my history of assembling materials and interweaving them to create something new and original. There is struggle, effort, and time involved in bringing together different material.

These diverse materials are symbolic of our individual histories, origins, religious affiliations, economic as well as political preferences. Through dialogues we can begin to see our commonalities as people of this planet.

The process of dialogue is not begun and finished by a single individual; it is spread over many generations, and it never comes to an end as long as people are alive.

The invitation for dialogue inherent to your work breaks away from the current social, political and economic environment we live in. How do you see the role of the artist in a world where slogans about building walls have reappeared?

Traditionally the Agikuyu people held their dialogues under the Mugumo tree. Under this tree, you had no option but to listen to the person you did not agree with. Under this canopy, you had to listen to each other, not with a view on how to respond, but with a view to comprehending why a position or a belief made sense to another person.

In my visual work, mabati is the continuum, that connects the past to the present. The most recent journey is represented by these other materials. As humanity, our more recent journeys are full of divisions; political, religious, economic, and social or cultural. When dialogue is allowed to happen, there is an intertwining, an understanding of cultures, adding to dialogues that have already begun.

My diverse materials are symbolic of our individual histories, origins, religious affiliations, economic as well as political preferences. Through dialogues we can begin to see our commonalities as people of this planet.

The exhibition “Let’s talk about it” is at the October Gallery from May 18th until July 29th.

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