“I am essentially a maker but people feel more at ease when I describe myself as a sculptor… which is also fine.” Arlene Wandera
Arlene Wandera was born in Kenya and moved to the UK with her family during her pre-teens.
She works with multiple mediums, including sculpture, installation, and image making. Her works initially stem from her immediate experiences intertwined with childhood memories, before developing into forms that navigate complex social and political interactions in daily life.
Many of Arlene’s works are made using common, discarded and forgotten materials like fabric off-cuts, broken furniture and empty food tins, broken wine glasses, reminiscent of repurposing. This is particularly prevalent in her ongoing series “Rejects Reclaimed”.
In her sculpture series “Everymen”, the conflict and relationship between Wandera’s heritage and life in the west, inform much of the production process, resulting in works that resonate with the viewer.
Arlene is also one half of the collaborative duo Duck & Rabbit Projects.
Renée Mboya: One of the main things that we’re dealing with in our generation are questions of identity, and especially being people of color, black people, black womxn in a certain context, the idea of the diaspora comes up a lot. We have the prerogative to situate ourselves inside of a specific African identity or to be able to relate to a diasporic African position which isn’t always so apparent.
In Stuart Hall’s (1996) canonical essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” he explicates two definitions of “cultural identity.” The first is an essentialist identity, which emphasizes the similarities amongst a group of people. Hall argues that this definition can and does inspire feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist art and activism, but cannot help us comprehend the trauma of colonialism. The second definition emphasizes the similarities and the differences amongst an imagined cultural group. Hall asserts that this definition is useful for understanding the trauma of colonialism because it emphasizes the historical and social contingency of identity. By using this definition in our analysis of power and normalization, we are better able to scrutinize historical and contemporary colonial relations and to struggle against them.
R.M: Having moved from Kenya with an awareness of what Kenya was – knowing a neighborhood, a community, a language – and what Kenya looks like, having that essence of Kenya; how do you situate yourself in the diaspora – what does diaspora mean for you being both a Londoner and a “Nairobian”?
A.W: I think if I’m completely honest, it means everything and nothing simultaneously.
With that I mean I think it is important for me to appreciate and understand where I was born, my blood line and where I was nurtured as a young girl. I embrace the duality and accept it for what it is. I also understand that sometimes I will find myself in situations where I must supposedly pick a side when the truth is, that I am all of the above so to speak, and sometimes it’s not easy or even necessary to define that.
R.M: How has this come into focus for you this year in particular, with you being involved with the Kenyan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a format which some might argue has outlived its purpose. Bob Nickas talks about the fact that for the most part biennials are about business and power – “art is not a prize fight, or a science fair in high school” – and that art is no longer in charge. Personally I’m more challenged in thinking about it in the sense of the construction of nationhood because of the way that it is imposed in an exhibition platform such as Venice; this miscellany of artists brought together in an almost chauvinistic display of patriotism. I ask myself what is ‘Kenyan(ness)’ let alone what is it to have an artistic representation of ‘Kenya’. How or what has that changed for you?
A.W: I am glad that these discussions about the Venice biennale format and the construction of nationhood are being had. They are very necessary and important.
For me, being invited to represent Kenya at the Venice Biennale was both an honor and a privilege, not because it’s Venice but because it was the first Kenyan Pavilion initiated by members of the Kenyan artistic community. I think this is really important and something to be celebrated beyond the politics, red tape, differences in ideas and differences in opinion because we actually made it happen against all odds. This will hopefully go towards pressing the re-set button whereby the Kenya Pavilion continues to exist as a platform that showcases art that challenges.
What I found very interesting throughout the process and especially at the opening, were the reactions of people who were not familiar with my practice. First they’d see the work and after meeting me, they would be surprised at my gender and then enquire where I’m from. To which I would reply “well, I’m from London via Nairobi” which would elicit a response such as “Oh, so you don’t live in Kenya?
This need to validate my legitimacy as a Kenyan and in turn my presence at the pavilion, was at the core of their enquiry.
I initially found myself feeling as though I must defend myself, which was also not necessarily or sustainable. The questions I would like to pose to them is: What do I need to prove to be a ‘legitimate Kenyan’ in their eyes? Do I need to define how often I visit Kenya, where I was born, where my parents are from in Kenya, where they live now, if I speak Kiswahili or Kiluhya, why my work isn’t feminine enough?
R.M: That immediately makes me think, what does Kenya look like to you? What is your imagination of Kenya? Because apparently people are thinking of Kenya in terms of a very specific form of physical proximity, as in, how you situate yourself in Kenya depends on how many times you landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in a year – which I find ridiculous because you could say that about any place you go. Here for example, I’ve been to London twice in three months, does that make me a Londoner? So . . . when you’re thinking about attaching a Kenyaness to yourself and to your work what does that look like?
A.W: It’s nostalgic. Mostly because I spent the first decade of my life there. It’s about trying to hold on to the memories of playing with my friends in Jericho – Nairobi, against the context of multicultural East London, and fighting every day to keep that identity.
The British influence on my identity was obviously quite dominant as it was prevalent in my teens, but even at a young age, I understood it wasn’t completely who I was, and I needed to be able to keep a balance between the two.
However now, having exhibited more extensively on the continent, (Africa that is.. not Europe), my perspective has slightly shifted. I’m experiencing Kenya as an adult and developing an emotional relationship with the country. It’s just such a profound part of who I am, and it’s not even about being physically based in Kenya but about how I conduct myself, how I feel when I’m around Kenyans, how I feel when I’m not around Kenyans . . . it’s just part of my blood.
It’s also about the languages. I hold onto Kenya through language. A lot of people assume I can’t speak Swahili and they definitely don’t think I can speak Luhya, so they are usually very surprised when I do. What I find most interesting is that when I go back to Nairobi, I constantly discover that most of my cousins and relatives who are my age or younger, don’t speak Luhya. So in a way, I’ve manifested my “Kenyaness” through language, and in turn preserved it.
R.M: It’s interesting because that’s always the irritation right, and there is this very particular tension between diasporic and continental communities. My question I suppose would be who has claim, if we can be so territorial as to stake a claim, over particular ways of expressing different aspects of the same identity. I think by extension the notion of claiming is also inherently an exclusion of some sorts, an othering in the sense that to distinguish oneself is one thing, but to remove others from the space of ‘home’ based on what you imagine their experience of the world to be involves a very intense and particular violence.
One of my favourite conversations, which I always come back to when thinking about diaspora, though I feel like now we’re beating a dead horse, is between Junot Diaz and Katherine Miranda, where Junot talks about some people, proverbial I guess, who are in such denial of the existence of a diaspora, who imagine somehow and miraculously so, that a nation exists as a pure territorial space and therefore anything existing outside of that space simply is not a thing. It’s what he describes as the “milk theory” – that you have a certain shelf life when in a national space, and as soon as you leave that space you, the milk, go off; and so you are no longer milk. In that instance my query is who in particular does this narrative benefit?
A.W: It’s funny as I don’t actually distinguish myself as diaspora either. I find that problematic. And in some ways I think of ‘diaspora’ as making a conscious effort to relocate yourself, to place yourself in another space, and to engage with that space. I didn’t have that choice, I was brought to London, and it just became my home. I immediately and automatically understood at that young age that I have two homes, one more emotional and nostalgic, and the other physical. I use the term diaspora because it’s the term that people identify with, but really, if I had a choice, I would always say that I am both milk and diaspora; That I can choose to be one or the other, as and when I wish. It’s just a question of whether people are open to allowing that to exist as it is.
R.M: I agree and I feel like the baseline for identity, along which we are all meant to situate ourselves is so oversimplified, and almost always fall along these binaries which are so stringent. I don’t consider myself to be Kenyan for example, I’m from Nairobi, and this is a very specific place which for me when I was growing up was barely touched by the narrative what it meant to be from ‘Kenya’, whether this narrative is accurate or not is not for me to decide being that I am not of that heritage. There are people who are from Kenya however, and I’ve met them – I think my mother is from Kenya – but even as I say this I know a lot of people would consider this distinction a rejection of that place, which it is surely not.
A.W: It’s a tricky one, I think the binaries exist because it’s easy to put people in boxes. It simplifies life because life IS messy and we’d like to think that we can sanitise the mess, smoothen the sharp edges by creating these categories, when in actual fact it doesn’t work because they bleed into each other anyway. I think accepting things for what they are, or what they are not is the way forward, but it’s a difficult thing to comprehend. When people categorize each other it’s often for selfish reasons. It’s to help one determine how to treat or deal with the person next to them.
R.M: Speaking of dealing – what’s it been like, what has the process of ‘reintegration’ into the Kenyan artistic community been like for you. I mean through ARTLabAfrica, through the Venice Biennale, Dak’Art Biennale and different communities that you are now finding yourself more involved with in Kenya.
A.W: It’s actually quite interesting because when I first met Jimmy Ogonga in 2008, I was actively seeking integration into the artistic life in Kenya. I was desperate to meet artists.
I didn’t know where to start and in fact, I was sitting here in London googling to no avail. I would say that my involvement with these spaces has sort of been a case of “the mountain coming to me”.
So I’ve been really lucky in that sense, and really fortunate to have met more artists, more creatives and seeing my affiliations blossom.
My plan is to return to Nairobi for a few months, to figure out the lay of the land and create. It’s all certainly been interesting and I’d like to preserve the purity of my practice and my engagement with the artists and the art scene.
R.M: What is your hope for an artistic future of East Africa? A future which includes you or excludes you, I don’t know. If you Google in 2028 whatever you were Googling in 2008, what do you hope to find this time?
A.W: Just more names, more faces, more spaces. More options and more variety I suppose. I think it’s good to have options and compared to many other cities on the continent, Nairobi definitely has the space to critically engage with contemporary art in a dynamic way.