FACE-ING URBAN AFRICA
When we think about Urban Africa and urban design, we often do not think about the womxn who create, manage and experience the true essence of design and urban space.
Nairobi Design Week and Matri-Archi have come together in a photographic project that generates inquiry and discourse through the many faces that inspire and shape Urban Africa.
Created during Nairobi Design Week 2019, and captured on 35mm film by Aisha Mugo, this series of 15 portraits showcases Kenyan womxn with a global awareness of urban narratives, together with their personal stories of Culture & Heritage grounded in relevant contemporary issues.
Curated By: Matri-Archi x Nairobi Design Week
Photography & Interviews by: Aisha Mugo
The culture, youth culture and especially the party scene excites and inspires me about Nairobi. I love the way Nairobians dress, the colours, the liveliness- I want to create art that’s lively and artsy and beautiful.
I really love the graffiti at K1 and everything going on at K1. The displays, the umbrellas, the bikes, it’s a geographical space that just inspires.
"I love the way Nairobians dress, the colours, the liveliness- I want to create art that’s lively and artsy and beautiful."
I love illustration because of the artistic freedom. I’m allowed to go crazy. There are no restrictions. Talking about interiors, maybe you can’t do this particular furniture because there’s no space, but with illustrations there is no such thing as that and you can depict it the way you want it. You can give an idea to three different illustrators and they’ll show it differently. It’s so diverse, there’s nothing like it.
Sometimes I do my work on social issues, I’m very passionate about social issues. My school project is about sexual violence so sometimes I feel like it’s a waste having all this talent and skill and you can’t give back to society. Sometimes I do work for fun or I see other work that an artist has done and I think why didn’t I think of that! So I take it and integrate into my work.
I’ve been to Shela, but also Lamu Island itself. The architecture is very old, it doesn’t evoke a feeling of this is ours, but it’s so well-maintained from the first people who started architecture there that it makes me feel like my spirit belongs. They’ve tried keeping the island as raw as it could be and I feel like that’s where we should be moving to.
Where every space we interact with- the thing about spatial design in Africa is that it doesn’t feel “me”. I can’t think about my ancestors through urban spaces.
Of course when I’m back in my rural home, I feel it and that’s why nature is so important, that’s why concrete roads and floors is bad and we’re constantly in shoes as well. It doesn’t feel natural.
We need connection to the ground, we need connection to our past, we need to feel belonging and our spaces are not welcoming us, they are shoving us out and a lot of the architecture that we see- I hope it’s changing, I’ve seen a few spots- but a lot of the architecture is such strong concrete, it’s so sealed, it’s so blocked that you feel confined.
I don’t feel like that’s where we’re supposed to be, we’re animals as well, clever ones, and that’s why we should use it in the best way possible.
You know in City Park, where they have the boats? I remember I used to go there every Sunday with my dad and so, those sentimental moments were great, the quality time we spent together and I need to go back!
So recently, I have been going to Karura Forest more and its one of those places I say we’re so lucky we have this forest, but then I hadn’t gone in years.
So I am making a more conscious effort to go more and just escape because once you’re in there you don’t know you’re in a city and we’re so lucky to have that.
Even the National Park is another place, which I’ve been going to more recently and again, there’s no other city in the world that has that. I think, we have all these great spaces even the museum itself.
I went to the museum a month ago with my little son, he’s not even two, we spent so much time inside, in the snake park and in the playground and a lot of people who live here have never even been and it’s such a great space! So we have all these pockets of great spaces but we don’t take advantage of them.
I’m a branding and marketing person, so I always think that these places need to do better at capturing our imagination, so that more and younger people who maybe have no idea they exist, can take advantage of their city. We need to reclaim our spaces and also the more that we visit them, the more we can make a case to the government or whatever authority, that there’s value in these places and they should invest because of how many people are visiting.
There was a time I went to Mogadishu in 2007 I think I was 10 years old I’m not sure- I was young. I remember going to the beach and all that but I used to think how and what Somalia used to look like way before the government disappeared and all that and maybe as a designer can I actually reimagine that? Maybe create buildings or spaces that are actually functional now?
Because that is where I want to try and work. Of course I’ll probably go and learn from other places and other spaces but in the end I know I am coming back to my community anyway.
So I want to base my target client and the people I want to appeal to is more the Muslim people, especially the Somali if possible. Not a lot of people actually do design, especially the Somali community, which is hard for me because usually people question my parents why their daughter is doing design as I had good marks in KCSE, then it becomes challenging for me because they think design or drawing is easy, which it never is.
They tell you that you’re not doing work because they compare you with someone who’s doing medicine and are doing work better than you. It’s kind of hurtful but it’s fine, I am used to them and I tell them I do what I want to do. The good thing is that my parents actually allow me, because my dad is a doctor so he knows and is a learned person.
My mum’s family is from Tanzania and so we usually go there for Christmas and when we were younger we would also travel there for the June-July holidays with my sister. There was a farm with coffee, banana trees and tea trees and my grandmother would always want us to get hands on experience learning the land in case of anything so no one show us the wrong way.
I was a teenager and I was not about listening and taking direction well, my grandmother wanted us to take pictures with the trees and amongst her crop because I think it was the first time the crop had really bloomed and blossomed in that way.
We went and we took pictures, but I wasn’t happy, in all the pictures I had my hand on my hip or I was rolling my eyes, I was telling her to hurry up so some of the pictures came out blurry and I just was not interested. From her, I could see it was her way of trying to leave us with a memory of her, because she knew it was the last time she was going to see us.
So every time I am in a forest or just a place with a lot of trees it reminds me of that memory of her. Cherishing the people around you and the sacrifices you make, and the sacrifices she made for us were out of this world and I couldn’t do this one thing just to see her smile that one last time. So I guess going back to Tanzania or just amongst the trees reminds me of her.
The unfortunate thing about my life is that I wasn’t exposed growing up, I was very sheltered, I never left the house. So my memories are within the compound, I can’t think of anything special about it- it was just living in a space.
But as I grew older and started to understand what Nairobi wants to do, I like spaces that seem to crop out of necessity and essentialism. I’ll give the example of the entrance to the airport, I love it! It’s like, just vast land and then you have these beautiful archways and gateway, rather than it being a piece of architecture, it’s like a moment in time, it’s an event that has been designed for that space.
My memories- not really I don’t have great memories, which is a shame, but at the same time, I think I celebrate things a little better because I have a clean fresh perspective, I’m not entitled to something. It’s definitely influenced how I think.
When I was young, some of my family members are abroad, so I would see the photos they take, the spaces they are in. I would try and compare with Kenya and there’s a whole gap and difference between the two spaces and my main inspiration actually came from Sydney.
I saw a photo from a house in Sydney, I can’t remember the architect and I was in high school, I remember from that I drew. I started drawing lines and just assuming I want a swimming pool and a gym, I still have that photo of my dream house and I would show my friends and they’d say that it’s impossible, how can I have a gym, a swimming pool, a gazebo inside the house? And a tree, how?
So I got my inspiration from that and I wanted to do architecture at first, but I figured I might as well do design because you’ll find me doing fashion, product, illustrations and now you’ll also find me doing interior. It’s something I love to do. I am a designer in general, I just don’t do interior design I do other aspects of design.
I think the one thing about Nairobi that really inspires me is just how people are hard workers, no matter what job they have, everyone is working. I like designs that planning interiors have done, they focus mostly on the culture of a people instead of the actual design.
For example, if a place is Swahili then we focus on the Swahili. If it’s a place, let’s say like the Serena Hotel then they actually focus on Kenyan work, they don’t go for Ankara or anything, if its Swahili or Masai that is dominant, they stick to theme and represent. When it comes to interior designing, I want originality.
You find interior designers here who they borrow their designs from Italy or elsewhere, but they borrow the whole thing not just aspects, or how they interpret the art onto a fabric or onto a space, they just take the whole thing. The whole image is, if this is a restaurant this is what we’re doing. When it comes to us, there’s nothing like we can say, “I got this inspiration from Kenya”.
I can tell you for a fact, even for what we study, it’s very hard to find people referring to an African designer. They always say they like Zaha Hadid’s work or anyone else, basically that’s where we think we go wrong.
"I don’t even know how to explain it, but you literally feel like your soul is just floating and it was like a whole ton of weight was taken off my shoulder..."
One of the largest Hindu temples, the Delhi Akshardam, its where I once went on a backpacking trip and we ended up going there and you’re not allowed to take electronics, no pictures nothing. But the moment we stepped foot into the campus of the temple it was like I was floating.
It is a complete different feeling, I don’t even know how to explain it, but you literally feel like your soul is just floating and it was like a whole ton of weight was taken off my shoulders, and it was just peaceful. You’re just there and completely at peace.
Let me trace it back to my roots, my roots back at home. When you look at houses made out of mud and animal dung, the first thing I used to feel was pity.
But at the same time when I started involving myself, I’ve been working there with people from home, its actually quite amazing being able to build your own home.
It’s a nice feeling, it’s an achievement. It’s very humble, but it’s their place, its home. But when it comes to modern spaces, I would prefer less concrete. It brings in light and light is happiness.
The National Museum, I remember we used to go when we were in school, every primary school in Nairobi has gone to the National Museum even high school, no one has not been there.
The first time I went I thought how cool it was, seeing people portrayed and showing different types of imaginations and the levels it can reach. When I was a kid I used to say that I wanted to do that, but I didn’t know until I cleared high school and now I’m like I would like to do that, and here I am basically doing it. It was amazing.
The different types of people and personalities in Nairobi inspire me. Nairobi is wild, it’s very wild! People are very different, but we all have a common thing that draws us together. The people inspire me the most.
The architecture in Nairobi is amazing, but it is a bit plagiarised. But, people in Nairobi are very talented and it’s something I didn’t realise for a while until I started meeting people who are creative. People are very experimental, especially when you go to places like Alchemist or K1.
We haven’t gotten to a place where we can fully express ourselves as Nairobians, Kenyans or Africans to say, and that talent is low-key hidden and it can come out more. Two years ago, I couldn’t wear glitter on my face, but look at me now!
At some point you just have to be yourself and be you and stop caring about what people think about you because art is an expression and that’s a lesson I’ve learnt from 2018 into 2019. If this is how I feel today and I want to express myself like this, let me do it because it is me.
I hope we can go into a place where we can fully express ourselves because we have so much talent, so much potential and so many amazing people and I hope we reach a place we can do that.
"...mostly Manhattan, but how familiar I became with it that when I watched movies I could recognise the different areas and streets."
Being from New York City, a lot of times I guess I just like to observe the world. I used to spend a lot of my time as a kid just walking around and I realised how familiar I became, mostly Manhattan, but how familiar I became with it that when I watched movies I could recognise the different areas and streets.
So I think there’s just like a lot of memories from my youth, exploring, watching people, I think I just enjoyed that.
I was brought up between Embu and Mbeere, to me those places remind me of everything- my childhood, my grandparents, my first lessons, my first strong emotions and feelings, be it positive or negative.
The scenery and the little activities I’d do, that for sure.
THANK YOU FOR VISITING 'FACE-ING URBAN AFRICA'
ONLINE EXHIBITION, CURATED BY NAIROBI DESIGN WEEK x MATRI-ARCHI
WORKS BY AISHA MUGO
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