Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga in Conversation

Yvette Greslé: When did you decide that you wanted to become an artist? What was the impetus for working with sculptural forms and materials?

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga: My personal life and my journey as an artist are intertwined. When I talk about my art – I am also talking about my personal journey. You cannot talk about one without the other. I grew up in a small village called Gacharage in Kenya. My mother was an elementary school teacher in the local school and so my grandmother became my babysitter. My grandmother was a very busy woman who had her farm, her animals, and her crops. Wherever she went I went. She and her friends were basket weavers and I watched them weave baskets and work with the thread that they would prepare from plants. They would strip the plants to make thread and I watched them chew it with their mouth, twist it in their laps to form a yarn and start weaving. I also saw them paint their homes with a certain very colourful clay. The women would dig deep holes to look for this clay and bring it home in the baskets that they wove to begin the process of painting.

I was immersed in this very early on in my life – not knowing then that this was art. As a four or five-year-old, I would be walking around with my grandmother and it is these experiences my art feeds on. I am imagining the colours and the textures of the baskets and the clay – imagining the landscape. Such memories invoke taste, smell, sensation and touch, moving through the landscape and walking into the bush to find the materials for basket weaving. Then digging into the soil to get the clay so that you can paint and also harvesting coffee beans. As children we ate the red coffee cherries, the coffee beans grow inside the coffee cherries which go from green to red as they ripen.

As a child, you must also have been taking in the conversations and stories of the older women? 

In the villages, in the evening, every family sits around the fireplace because it’s dark. We didn’t have electricity, so we would gather around this fireplace. This is a woman’s space – my grandmother commanded that space. She would weave her basket, and she had a pot of food cooking on three stones. It was here she told us the stories of her people and their traditions. It’s an oral society. My grandmother did not write anything down and yet she passed on this information to us. It’s passed around the fireplace and it’s your responsibility to pass it on to the next generation. I am very fortunate because I am passing it on through my visual arts. From this fireplace, we then moved on to school. Speaking around the fireplace, my grandmother had been talking to us in the Gikuyu language. She taught us about the Gikuyu people, her mother, her grandmother, and their traditions. When we went to school we were introduced to the English language. At the age of five, we had already mastered one language totally and we were moving on to the next one.

Kenya achieved its independence from Britain during your childhood in 1963-4.

We were just kids. In fact, we were the kids who went to celebrate our independence. We didn’t really know what was happening and were just told there is something called Uhuru. Uhuru means independence in Swahili. We were very fortunate that we were growing just as the country was getting its independence. I belonged to a very privileged generation of children. Everything was available, and it was a very fortunate period for Kenya. When I was about six years old we moved to Nakuru in the Great Rift Valley for my mother’s work. It was almost 150 miles from my grandmother. I completed my elementary school and my middle school in a more urban setting. This is where you meet the children from all the other tribes in Kenya and the language becomes Kiswahili. This language is spoken by everyone and became my third language. We were also speaking each other’s languages. I went to a school with Kenyan kids of predominantly Asian origin and was also immersed in their culture, their food, and their dances. I spoke fluent Gujarati in middle school. Then I moved on to the Uganda-Kenya border to go to High School. There, I went to a Catholic institution with Irish sisters and I became immersed in that culture. I came to all these new experiences with an artistic eye and I absorbed it all.

After school you went to the University of Nairobi.

The University of Nairobi was a very political place. There were those of us who were very unhappy with the government. Daniel Arap Moi was the president of Kenya then. We went out to protest in the streets. We would fight the police and they would fight back. The university would close time and time again. In 1982, there was an attempted coup in Kenya and we went out and supported the people who were planning to overthrow the government. It didn’t work out and a few days later, the university was closed for a year. When you are 18 or 19 years old you are very idealistic and believe in the truth – you are willing to fight for it.

Did you have role models when you were at the university?

We had them, but they were considered radicals, they would be jailed. Many of our colleagues who were student leaders went to jail and most of them never got out. It was not a very romantic time. I finished my first degree at the University of Nairobi. I performed so well that they called me back to become what they then called a tutorial fellow, just a young teaching assistant. This is how I got a scholarship to go to UCLA. I flew to Los Angeles to work on my master’s degree.

How did a formal fine art training in a university environment shape you as an artist? Were you taught Kenyan art history at the University of Nairobi?

I did learn a bit about Kenyan art history and, together with the other students, I visited Kenyan institutions, the museums and the very few galleries that existed. But we were never taught to integrate our lives into what we were learning. It was about passing a test. You are taking a photography class to pass a test, even though you are taking pictures in areas that are slums where there is poverty and violence – there was a kind of disconnection. At graduate school I really came to understand myself and came back to my grandmother’s thread. It took me many years to say ‘This is who I am, this is my strength’, which is the thread you see today in my work. I use metal thread now – not the fibre. It runs through all my work, this thread that still connects me to where I came from. It connects that journey.

What was it like at UCLA? Did you have any strong mentors there?

The journey to UCLA was very interesting because at graduate school you are expected to write a statement of purpose. I struggled with that because for me it had always been spontaneous; from weaving the basket to painting the huts, just flowing from one material to another, from one technique to another. In graduate school you are told to pause and think about what you are doing.

At the university in Nairobi there was a young professor who had come from UCLA in the 1960s. His name was Professor Schapiro. As Kenya was getting its independence, he helped set up the art department at the University of Nairobi. When I went to university there he was always mentioned. Then, when I arrived at UCLA, I discovered that Professor Schapiro was already aware that I was coming. He understood where I came from and helped me to navigate my way through the graduate programme. I had very good support from the professors at UCLA. 

By the time I graduated, the political situation in Kenya had become really bad and so I took the option of staying on. I became an art teacher and taught at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio for many years. In 2006, I decided to become a full-time artist. I was painting on fabrics and making quilts. I started combining my quilts with a little bit of metal, remembering the Mabati Women and what they were doing. I began to use the recycled cans I, and experimented with aluminium cans and what happens when I bend them or break them. Then I started to explore the galvanised sheet metal or mabati, again I was thinking of the Mabati Womens’ Groups and the role that they played in community housing projects in Kenya in the 1960s and 1970s.

Tell me more about the mabati in your memory and in your art practice now.

In the 1960s as soon as Kenya got its independence, it became a cash economy. Men went looking for work in Nairobi. The women were left on their own. Women discovered that their biggest chore was water, going to the river at six o’clock in the morning and then again at six o’clock in the evening. They wanted to solve this problem and got together, as groups of women, to re-roof their homes. They decided that they were going to transition from the thatch, which needed to be replaced every six months to a more long-lasting material. Traditionally, the roofing amongst the Gikuyu people is done by women and the men do the rest of the structure. The women made decisions working as a group and decided that if they could get mabati roofs they could save time. To make money the women sold beans, corn or whatever they could at the local market. Money would be given to one woman at a time to roof her home. Soon they were collecting more water and they went on to farm cash crops such as coffee and tea. 

I remember the women roofing their homes with mabati and seeing the new roofs. With time, these roofs started to change because of the elements and some would get darker and darker, whilst some would remain lighter. When I started working with my mabati in Texas – that memory came back to me. I wondered what would happen if I left my mabati outdoors. I started buying a little bit of mabati, leaving it outdoors – I allowed nature to play its part.

What is the meaning of the name mabati beyond the actual material itself?

It is now associated with the Mabati Women’s Group and with empowerment. Politicians had to go through these women to get elected because they had become a powerful force. Indeed the Mabati women negotiated with their husbands to educate their daughters – people like my mother, who otherwise would not have been educated. 

We are looking at your exhibition ‘Tushauriane – Let’s Talk About It’. You also use other materials with the mabati.

I was a quilter. In Kenya, we used to call it patchwork. I’ve always used fabrics, and in Tushauriane you can see the red fabric. I print my own fabrics, weave them, and stitch them and I’ve also crocheted the steel wire you see in this work. In Nakuru, you would see women making crochet in the streets. When I moved to Nakuru, in the 1970s in my middle school years, I picked up the skill of crochet. 

Your structures are very architectural. When I look at Tushauriane, I imagine the windows on the outer façade of a house.

I called it Tushauriane because there is also a conversation between the different components. You can look at it from any perspective. This piece took a long time to come together and I am really happy with the textures and colours on the mabati. For the longest time I would bring the mabati outside, bring them inside – and then take them outside again. While I was doing this, I was working on the piece with the crochet and the fabric.

Teremko – the Descent feels monumental in scale. The metal sheets flow downwards and coils onto the gallery floor.

I have weathered the mabati naturally leaving it outdoors. In making this work, I wanted to create awareness about women who, in certain parts of the world, are still having to descend to the rivers, valleys and wells to collect water. Every day, they have to carry gallons of water that they transport on their heads or on their backs – I was thinking of water.

Teremko makes me think of the idea of a counter monument to narratives that are not considered the most important story.

The history of the Mabati Women has not been covered. If you Google it you will find very little online. Not much has been spoken about these women. What they did might seem quite minor, but it has had ripple effects.

You are honouring memory, but not in a way that is obvious or literal.

The reason why I am not making it obvious is because I am an abstract artist. The role of an abstract artist is to leave you to interpret the message. There has never been a time that I have not been an abstract artist. I think in an abstract way and I grew up reading literature which is very abstract, in that it leaves room for the reader to interpret the work. I started with African literature, writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Peter Abrahams, and read the poetry of David Rubadiri.

Can you talk more about the idea that your story is intertwined with the work?

My grandmother’s generation, the Mabatigeneration, my mother and myself, are all intertwined in this work. My mother, who was a teacher, was very instrumental in my becoming an artist. She encouraged me. The textures that I get in my mabati are very much about the idea of relationships. I leave my mabati outdoors in the weather – there is a relationship between the weather and my material. They have a conversation. I am not part of that conversation. When I join in on the conversation I start to think ‘Maybe this could be a square. What are the textures saying?’ Then, I become part of the conversation. It’s like the conversations I had with my grandmother, and then my mother, this continues from your grandmother and your mother – and on to your friends.

Looking at Routes of Migration, I notice the fabric placed in the poultry wire.

I was thinking about the routes that migrants take as they flee from war or hunger. They leave clothes behind in fences as they are trying to climb over them. They leave things behind and this might become markers for others coming after them. They go to the next place and lead a new life. The use of different materials is really talking about the times we are living in. Why can we not, as human beings, come together and have a decent conversation? In my work, I use all these different materials, they are so completely different, and yet they can form something beautiful. 

In Ndumo – The Girls’ Dance you have constructed a monumental, abstracted form that invokes the costume and movement of a dancing figure. You have bent the metal sheets shaping a conical, pleated form animated by the textures and colours of the weathered mabati.

In Kenya, we have the women’s dance and the girls’ dance. I discovered that even in San Antonio where I live, there is a girls’ dance. At 16, the girl comes of age and she dances alone and looks like a bride. In South Texas, folkloric dance uses elaborate costumes. This one is based on South Texas. I have also made another similar work based on a women’s dance in Kenya. Across different cultures these dances have different names.

When you are making your work you are thinking about weather conditions, atmosphere and sensation, related to seasonal shifts and the passing of time. You also allow for chance elements, Before Winter, is an interesting example of this.

I am so in tune with the weather and how it affects my materials. In Kenya, I would walk around outside with my grandmother. I have lived in San Francisco which has a beautiful landscape. I live in Texas where it’s all outdoors. I am very influenced by nature. The dried leaves in Before Winter are from my back yard: I was working outdoors and leaves were falling. I was busy with the blue paper, and was thinking about the blue skies, and as the leaves fell on the paper, I decided to leave them where they fell. Later, I reorganised them and made them part of the work.

The passing of time is a very important aspect of your work. We are looking now at Kukumbuka – To Remember.

My materials talk about the passing of time and I witness them change. I have also witnessed the Mabati Women change. I met the last of the women when I went back home to Kenya in 2004. They were all just sitting outside and couldn’t move. They were in their 90s and I met three of them. The women told me ‘This is time, it passes and this is where we are’. When I left, one of the women gave me a basket with food, saying ‘If you come back and you don’t find us – it’s the passage of time’. When I returned, sure enough they were gone. Even as my material was ageing, the women themselves were ageing. There is also an intertwining of the ageing of the material, of them and of all of us – of everything. 

Similarly to Routes of Migration, your work Bridges Not Walls talks about the political situation as we are experiencing it around the world right now.

In this work, I am asking each person to look to herself or himself and ask the questions ‘What wall have I built around myself? What can I do to accommodate others? What dialogues can be had?’ By the time the US government says it’s going to build a wall on the Mexican border we have already built walls ourselves.

In this work, it’s a wall and yet it’s not a wall. I live very close to Mexico, two hours away and the border wall looks like this. You can see the kids playing on the other side and they can see you. Is it a wall? Is it not a wall? What is it? Why do you build a wall that allows you to see through it?

In this body of work, I have really struggled with bringing materials together. I’ve brought poultry wire and crocheted wire together with mabati. The message for this show is dialogue. A dialogue is not competing to speak. It’s giving the other person time and space to voice their ideas and opinions.

As we have walked around the exhibition and talked – I have thought about the spaces that you personally occupy as a woman.

My work is about my journey as a Gikuyu woman, who is also an artist. My art is intertwined with my journey. It is intertwined with the history and the traditions of my people, the Gikuyu people. It is also intertwined with all the people I’ve met in all the different cities where I have lived. As a Gikuyu woman we have spaces that we occupy. The fireplace is one of them and this is where we are taught about our histories. We have a specific dance as Gikuyu women. This is a mentorship dance where you teach the younger girls how to become women and mothers. Then we have a final space that we call a women’s space where nobody goes. Whatever she puts in there is between her and her god. Space, in the lives of the Gikuyu women, is very important, it’s very sacred. A baby is born in a very sacred place with only the mother and the midwife. Those sacred places that my grandmother taught me about exist still today. You just have to look around. There are special places – sacred spaces. In a park, you can go and sit under a tree – this is a sacred space. Sacred spaces are there, but sometimes we are too busy to recognise them. My work is about the story of the Gikuyu woman and her sacred spaces, the journey of the Mabati Women of the 1960s, and the ripple effect that they have had on me. I stand here today because I am educated, like my mother. A Mabati Woman is someone. This is my journey and this is the story of my art.

Main image: Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Teremko – The Descent, 2017, texturing on sheet metal 276.86×142.24×82.88cm. (photo: Jonathan Greet, courtesy of October Gallery, London).

‘Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga: Tushauriane: Let’s Talk About It’, solo exhibition was held at October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1, 18 May – 29 July 2017.

Aurora Corio