The soapstone artist walks out to meet us from the back of his shop, shakes our hands, apologizes for the green paint that stains his hands and does not transfer to us. He comes from a region famous for its soapstone carving. As with other curio markets, this one is saturated: shop after shop offers similar items. We’ve visited enough shops to appreciate the high quality of his work.
The particular carving I want is small, perhaps 4 inches high. It loops in patterns I recognize as vaguely Makonde. Another curio trader has already offered us antique Congo masks, dirt-encrusted enough to seem genuine. I am reminded of the Emir in Bound to Violence, who instructs local craftsmen to create and bury antiques for unsuspecting Europeans to discover. Trade crosses borders, we are told. Genuine Congo antiques travel across borders to find hungry tourists. Provenance is a foreign word.
Given such cross-border travel, I wonder about what else crosses borders. Might carving techniques travel? Aesthetic practices? How do those trained in soapstone adjust when faced with techniques developed for wood?
This line of thinking is arrested when the soapstone artist tells us that he copies his carvings from books.
What is Africa to me?
A book . . .
- Countee Cullen
The making-book of Africa is as old as the idea of Africa. Yet the question of how Africa books itself still seems fairly unexplored – beyond literacy, Christianity, and administration. This is a careless generalization.
I seem to have been looking for indigeneity—for a story of shapes and techniques passed down in an unbroken line of soapstone artists. And if I knew more about soapstone techniques, I could narrate something about genealogies of technique. After all, what is on display is not the fixing of place and form, but the dynamic ways technique translates across materials, across borders, across geo-histories, across forms. This is a way of framing technique, framing indigenous art-making, not envisioned in policy documents obsessed with preserving “the way things were.” This emphasis on form over technique has implications for what is recognized and recognizable as Kenyan or indigenous art and, more to the point, for the support available to local artists.
What does it mean to frame artists as producers of legible, sanctioned indigeneity?
With few and almost no variations the curio stalls sell similar objects. It would take a more sophisticated eye than I have to detail variations in technique, the unique signatures that distinguish this elephant from that elephant, this item copied from a book with that item copied from a book. Apart from a few artists we see carving, painting, and beading, the relationship between objects and sellers is unclear. It’s difficult to tell who makes what and who sells on commission. One woman appears to run, manage, or supervise three different stalls.
We visit Kisumu Museum, where the faded signs, colonial-era descriptions, and poorly-maintained dala suggest the dangers of amber-stored history. A tableau displays the “people” of this region. It consists of 3 young women, two bare-breasted, one fishing the other grinding grain, the last looking nomadic. Musical instruments are identified by how they produce sound—membranophone—or by their similarity to other forms: witness the “African Lyre.”
Indigenous names are little on display. And if they are, hierarchy is affirmed. In the aquarium exhibition signs read
This tells a story of what it means to think with vernacularity—and to efface it.
It is unrealistic to expect museums to “preserve” culture, especially if one envisions culture as dynamic encounter and interaction. And, perhaps, the neglected museum registers a certain truth about our continual failure to arrest fading pasts. These faded and fading signs—exposed to the elements—tell a story about history as (un)writing and over-writing. Even now I craft text over, above, and around these fading signs.
On the day we visit, we are surrounded by busloads of secondary school students. I wonder what it means for them to be told this fading, this drying out, this disrepair is history. Ozymandias casts a long shadow. Yet, I cannot regret that colonial-era imaginations are fading. I cannot regret the loss of amber-stored history.
At the Maseno University Bookstore, history overflows. The history section is the largest section in the bookstore, and history here is owned and dictated by Bethwell Ogot. What, I wonder, does it mean for history to be filtered through and managed by one imagination? How does the singularity of the colonial imagination meet its corollary in the singularity of the dominant historian?
To think of history here is to encounter the ongoing life of the post-election violence: to see scarred and fire-gutted buildings dotting the landscape, betrayal punished by the betrayed. “He had given one million to the opposition,” we are told. Capital flight. Melancholia.
Here it is harder to forget what does not exist in the other elsewheres I frequent.
How does memory exist? How does a visitor, a wanderer, encounter memory? How does one understand the fabrication of memory? The we-us, here-now of now-here? How does one participate in such fabrication? And what is it to encounter a fabrication of one’s complicity?
Perhaps all visitors to elsewhere believe the past lives more strongly there, that history is more present, that points from which we depart—call them home, call them origin, call them base—erase themselves much too readily. Perhaps we see the now-here we can inhabit—as home, as base—as much too threatened, much too slippery, eroding at a furious pace. And we want to believe in a different relationship to the past. Not to find a purer or even more vitalizing concept of time: elsewhere times speed up and slow down and shuffle and repeat and get stuck and leap and vibrate, as primitivism could never recognize. But we might want to envision our tempos and dynamics shifted, askew, intensified, diminished.
We travel to be disrupted.
To claim that Kisumu is a night city is to say something about walkability and proximity. We are in town, within walking distance of most places we need to go. The night is more immediate, more present, as is the joyous abandon we have found.
Because Nairobi is my place of growing up, it can never be a place of abandon. The good, church-going, safety-conscious son I have always been responds to Nairobi with pursed lips and tidy knees, aware of being watched by all the versions of who I have been. Aware, also, that I learned to experience desire and passion and lust elsewhere, to feel my hungers in foreign bodies, in alien accents, with other-made and other-making bodies. I do not know how to translate those hard-won unfluencies in Nairobi. I re-encounter my 16-year-old self, bookish, retiring, unsure, and I do not know how to inhabit the ghost of him.
At night—here, there, any-where—versions of desiring me emerge: tantalized, frightened, excited, melancholic. Knowing there’s something I’ve missed, still miss, and that I lack ways to name it.
Perhaps the allure of Kisumu, of not-Nairobi, is precisely that I had never imagined it as a place where the missing I could have been. It is not haunted by the 12-year-old who walked from Nairobi Primary to Nairobi Hospital; the 13-year-old who, on first returning home from Lenana, swore never to return; the 16-year-old who navigated Christian obligations and masturbation guilt; the 17-year-old who sought escape in banal histories of “classical” music that barely acknowledged the twentieth century; the 18-year-old who pined for other elsewheres, knowing, somehow, that Nairobi could never be enough, and not knowing what it might cost to leave and stay away.
Kisumu offers a karibu, not a karibu nyumbani.
I should know the dangers of the easy-to-believe
Abandon is seductive
I am still too-easily seducible