Alongside a constellation of artists, scholars and activists, I have co-developed projects in Nairobi which seek to co-represent counter-narratives of Kenyan identity. These projects, ranging from media collectives such as Slum TV (2007-) to videos projects like The Bike Gang (2015-17), testify to the ways in which young Nairobians constantly engage in changing and overlapping identities.
Nairobi Distributed is an artist book which reflects on this practice, exploring the significance of performance, Sheng (the slang of Nairobi) and Nairobi’s decentralised networks (matatus, video booths and bazes) in young Nairobians’ sense of belonging. The book considers the nature of these collaborations from the perspective of different temporalities (thoughts at the time/thoughts since) in an attempt to understand my shifting blind spots regarding the motivations of the participants, the power relationships involved and the agencies invoked.
Nairobi Distributed is book which tries to disentangle political narratives of ethnic identity from the way in which identities are actually experienced, performed and practised in day to day life. I approach the question indirectly and obliquely, through criticaly reflecting on a number of collaborative art projects in Eastlands, Nairobi.
To abbreviate a complex situation: politicians in Kenya instrumentalise ethnic identity to encourage political allegiances along ethnic lines. This flattened version of belonging bears little relationship to the complexity of Kenyan lives. Nevertheless, as identity is a powerful sentiment and because ethnicity is a fundamental element of being Kenyan, politicians have established a dominant narrative in which ethnicity and identity are flattened into one another.
In this context, telling stories that reveal multiple Kenyan identities is a vital political act; it chips away at a corrosive political rhetoric.