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By Wambui Mwangi


Thursday, April 28, 2011.



Last year, a curator friend asked me to write a text about one of her exhibitions.  My friend is from Cameroun but I met her in Senegal some years ago.  The exhibition was to be in Germany. When she wrote, I was in Southern Africa and she was in Latin America; by the time I responded, I was back in East Africa and she in Western Europe.  Already, thoughts of her coalesce around border crossings and global distances, re-tracings and re-routings of self and identity, traumas of dislocations, histories of intersections. 

Like snails, most of us leave barely perceptible traces as we journey though our ordinary lives.  Yet even these almost-invisible paths have a presence in the present. They have force and can compel compliance; they can enliven claims, awaken obligations.

The exhibition was titled “Make Yourself At Home":  

"The exhibition Make Yourself at Home features ten artists and artists' groups from around the world, all of whom present works that address the notion of hospitality. The contemporary world is characterised by the constant movement and displacement of people, but also by the increased unwillingness of countries to welcome migrants. Make Yourself at Home looks at how artists interpret the concepts of home and hospitality in a globalised world, and includes works – many made especially for the occasion – that explore issues of hospitality at the individual, institutional or national level, and which touch on themes of human migration, colonial heritage and international conflict."

Some of these artworks were photographs of African immigrants in Europe; it was to these she desired my attention directed. I would have passed on this invitation, using as a sincere justification my general ignorance (or rather lack of specialised knowledge) of most things to do with contemporary Europe, save maybe some of their books.  She is an old friend, however, and so I asked to see images  in order to satisfy minimum standards of courtesy before declining prettily: I fully intended to beg off.  But my friend the curator is a wily woman. 

In Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman movies, it is a stylistic aspect of Zatoichi’s prowess that his enemies are inevitably dead for some minutes before they realise it; they remain standing while he passes amongst them like a scorching wind. Only as the corner of his cloak flutters away around a corner does his enemy’s head recall the laws of gravity and mortality, finally toppling off the stump of neck onto the ground. Zatoichi’s blindness is important in that his sense of movement in space follows different kinds of referents, which in turn enable different flows of, and relationships between, the physical and the invisible.  My curator friend has a similar effect, I find.

She would not permit me to see the images for/of the show.  Of course, what I would have declined with faint interest were it freely offered, I developed a compulsion about now that it was denied.  As I found myself falling for her bait even as I clearly recognised it, I speculated about the route of desire, disavowal, and self-denial, half remembered selves and secrets, mysteries and their seductions.  Perversities are critical in the hands of those who wield them well, knowing to keep the sharp edge outwards.

Perhaps also my friend the curator was sensitive to the ruptures and divergences between all images and texts, conflicts amongst modes of representations, shifting distributions of perception and distance and wanted to stage these dissonances.  The withdrawal of context liberates content, and contradicts it; the absence of content challenges context and dislocates it.  She is an artist herself-- these are her playing fields.

Disorientation.  To ‘be lost.’ 

“Make Yourself at Home.”

She knew I’d play.




Speaking from an alert ignorance is an intricate discipline of negotiating between the poles of the ‘known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown uknowns,’  --and to think we all mocked Rumsfeld-- treating extrapolations with gingerly care, tip-toeing around generalisations and claims.   


It elicits close attention to details and specificities at the same time as it denies their perceptibility—drawing the mind beyond its boundaries and the senses beyond corporeal range.  I imagined those photographs, fell into them.  For a while, they owned me; I still feel the occasional tug of their call.  Claims, histories, rights, affiliations, stories overheard, stolen bodies, the echoing sound of missing laughter.


If the bodies of these immigrants are in Europe, they cannot be here in Africa with us.  We have lost them; they are gone.  To lose, to have lost.  To be vanquished? To mourn?  Knowing this is already to find a form in the darkness, perhaps to touch, finding the ridges of old scars and hitching on the edges of new scabs.  To think through returns and dis- and re- placements, loops of distances through time, departures and arrivals, is to feel the ground underneath one's feet liquify.  Who is ‘us’? Where is ‘here’? What claims are these: what remembered/invented/insistent expressions of 'belonging'?  Deprived of ‘facts,’ visual and other, I made a fact of loss, of not-having, tracking absences and invisibilities,  finding losses, trails in the dark. 


Lost what? Where do ‘selves’ reside?   Whose losses are these?   


When I was away from home, I did not necessarily feel ‘lost.’ I was only ‘elsewhere.’  Important sections of my being were anchored at home, even if my body suffered from the unspeakable winters in ‘away.’  Those other places also were homes.  In addition, 'home' is no guarantee of safety or sanctuary--it all depends, quoi.


Later, reading Nalo Hopkinson, I thought about the discrepancies between bodies and selves that Diaspora stories, and those that engage dispossession and scattering of bodies, hopes or both, sometimes contain. They suggest that bodies and selves, while often associated, are not necessarily congruent or even proximate.  In some of Okri’s stories, characters walk around with extra parts or missing ones, trafficking in their own fragments. In Ngugi’s Wizard, corrupt agents of the state embody their pathologies in grotesque extensions of their fleshly protuberances: gigantic ears, monstrous lips, omnivorous eyes.  


Does loss shrink inwards, to a space further away and dense with impenetrability like the negative black space of photographs, retreating into mysteries made profound by inaccessibility?  Or does it protrude outwards in bulging spaces of invisibility and speak in the rough textures of the un-sayable? Perhaps the several blind wise men encountering the elephant were multiple facets of the same lone figure-- wrestling with knowledge.  Or another way of thinking Jacob, fighting with the angel. 


Sensitivities and sore spots creep closer.   "Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon."


My friend the curator is a wise woman.  Now, I understand a little better why moths fly into the flame. 


My metaphors harden.  I imagine past connections and those linking emotions and bodies across times and across distances, more tangibly as filaments, steely-fragile spider’s silk.   Sometimes they harden into metal girders, invincibly straddling the sky.  I think also that my friend the curator is wise in the secret languages of women, and in working the webs of affiliation and complex interconnections that we all spin and  which entangle us.   Keguro Macharia has coined yet another neologism I like: “architextures.”  Lineaments, ligaments, in-betweens.  Movement and memory; histories dancing with emergent forms.

After my friend has finished having her way with me, she left behind (small compensation) the gift of her ambivalence.  I do not know if I want to see the photographs, now that I presumably can.  I eye strings with grave suspicion, always turning to watch them as they wind around me.   But in the darkness, I can’t see them. 


Something else happens.

Wambui Mwangi is a photographer, writer and academic. She is the founder of Generation Kenya and she blogs at Mad Kenyan Woman.


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