A photograph hangs on the second floor of the newly re-done Kenya National Museum. Titled “Woman at the Weekly Races off the Ngong Road,” it depicts a white woman of a certain age busily marching, cane in hand. She is captured in motion, evidence of life as it happens. Uninterested in the photographer, she betrays no awareness of his presence.
In the foreground, to the left, a young black man in his late teens or early twenties looks directly at the photographer, attempting to engage a gaze that looks without seeing. He is only one of the 30 other Africans in the photograph, frames for the “Woman at the Races off Ngong Road.”
I am struck by how easy it is to be made invisible in one’s country, unremarked upon, flora and fauna to frame white womanhood. And I deliberately leave the photographer anonymous—he is a type.
I am reminded that race is about framing, and the privilege of being unexceptional here, which I relish, is that one recedes into the background. The museum in its telling and being—look for Stephen Partington’s forthcoming work—foregrounds frames and framing, race and history.
The halls are dimly lit, the galleries shaded. One must approach the photographs and peer closely. Metaphors multiply.
The dimly lit halls emphasize the sotto voce nature of race relations in Kenya. This obligatory stop for tourists reassures whiteness, juxtaposing the scientists, the collectors, the anthropologists, all white, against the black objects, reduced to what they carry, wear, use, collectibles.
The photographs are undated, depicting a then and now that could be anytime. Kenyan time divides into then and now, unspecified and unspecifiable, frozen into frames and framing. We remain in place, without time.
We walk though the gallery unsure of the narrative it tells, indifferent to the subtle temporal markings, and only as we reach the end do we discover that Kenyan history moves from circumcision ceremonies, in which pre-pubescent girls hold hands with post-adolescent warriors, to street children.
What disturbs me most are the pictures of street children sleeping in piles, their bodies indistinguishable from those of genocide victims.
That they are socially dead need not be said.
* * *
Whose museum is this? Whose memories does it hold? Whose history does it tell?
* * *
I return to the dimly lit halls, the badly lit photographs, reliant, I think, on the gorgeous skylight, but the sun hides in heavy skies.
Still, I think, this is no reason for the photographs to have inadequate lighting.
History emerges here as a dimly lit spectacle, its more tortured racial aspects hidden—1952-1963 are completely erased.
History must be shaded, captions edited (misspelled, absent, or lacking).
To see all these, one must work against the absent light, read despite it, note the silent corrections the museum demands—only when I mention it does my friend notice that “cruel” has been spelled as “crue.” In doing so one colludes in creating one kind of history, one shaded, dim, sotto voce. Even without the signs, we whisper in here.
Schoolchildren run through the halls, indifferent to the kinds of stories and histories told here, glad to have an afternoon off school. Once, when I was their age, I might have termed them thoughtless, unable to recognize the opportunity they are handed to be in a museum, to see a different Kenya. Now, I think they have the right reaction. One should be indifferent to an abjectifying narrative.
Perhaps I should not say this. After all, I teach my students to be open to knowledge, to read Freud along Malcolm X, T.S. Eliot with Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson with Marianne Moore, Claude McKay with Ngugi wa Thiong’o. To enact a form of cultural and intellectual braiding.
But this valuable site of pedagogy is absent from a site that, for all its badly done captions, seems to insist that history speaks for itself.
* * *
Only in the contemporary art gallery do I get a sense of Kenya now, the names, colors, textures, styles, juxtapositions tell a story of Kenya’s richness, the vibrant talents of its artists: Dali-esque paintings jostle with Picasso-inspired tales. Aaron Douglas would be at home here, I think, my limited knowledge apparent. My favorite paintings depict richly colored shadows, glorious ochre fading into black browns, shapes abstracted, given life by the narrative title, “living.”
The stark contrast, clichés must be used, between what the museum considers worth preserving, the accented colonial voice that whispers, and what contemporary Kenyans narrate demands a better observer—my knowledge of art is too vulgar.
I notice, however, that the contemporary gallery features no photographs. This canvassed, carved, textured, colored, abstracted, unfolding Kenya makes no claims to truth or objectivity—it is the Kenya we imagine into being.
For a moment, it feels like home.