Meet the Artists of Lamu Space Station
When a group of artists began clearing an abandoned house on Lamu, an island in the Indian Ocean off the northern coast of Kenya, there were moments when they became overwhelmed by the task that lay before them. Over two and a half weeks, as they hacked at the overgrown flora and cleared the detritus from under the hot sun, this newly-formed collective resolved to dig in with purpose. Each day, bags and bags of discarded plastics had to be disposed of.
This was the first act in the story of Lamu Space Station — a project created to give voice to local artists from the archipelago and their young contemporaries from the capital of Nairobi.
Lamu Space Station is a space to have conversations about the future. A place where these artists are imagining new stories for their community; rejecting the modern narrative that the human race can fly off to Mars once our planet becomes inhabitable. Their work, encircled by the natural beauty and gentle rhythm of the island, compels us to reflect on an ecosystem in all its fragility as the industrial world encroaches upon it.
Some of the artists who are part of this one-of-a-kind gallery on Lamu Island spoke to OkayAfrica about how their commitment to conserving the environment informs their artworks.
Mohamad Twaha Shariff was born in the old town of Lamu, a UNESCO heritage site that flexes and bustles as most port towns do, but here there are no cars or trucks, and much work is carried out with the use of donkeys. It is only recently that motorcycles have even started moving their way into the community.
At 30 years old, Shariff has moved away from his trade in construction. Over the last twenty years, as new cultures have arrived and businesses have grown, he’s witnessed changes on the island. He contemplates a threat to more than the traditions of his Muslim-majority community. “People used to sail these waters but now there are machines everywhere,” he says. “The environmental impact from pollution and oil spills is destroying our fishing culture – something unimaginable for Lamu.’
As foreign trawlers continue to fish in deep and shallow fishing areas in the region and with a new deep-water port constructed to handle large container ships, Shariff has created work out of discarded ropes and fishermen nets. For him, it has become a question of any resistance being necessary: “It is almost impossible,” he says, referring to the wave of development that is encroaching on their way of life. “But no matter how difficult, the village agrees with our mission [to raise awareness about how damaging pollution is].”
Abdul Rop, a 29-year-old artist and member of the Brush Tu Collective in Nairobi, has fostered a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci from a young age. After completing his diploma in Sociology and Religion, he chose to pursue a life in art.
Having paid a trip to the nearby island of Manda across from Lamu he experienced firsthand the impact of ocean pollution. “The plastic strewn across the beach shocked me, it felt apocalyptic,” he says. “I was inspired to create pillars for my installation — on one side they are perfectly smooth, but behind it all there is the ugly threat from this terrible debris.”
Plans to develop Manda, an island with no natural water or even electricity, leave Rop prickling with discontent. “The fantasy of having lots of people living there is ridiculous,” he says. “It’s a social disaster in the making.”
In 2019, local activists succeeded in thwarting moves to build the country’s first coal-fired power plant on the mainland nearby. As Rop says: “We hope to give people the motivation in the future to continue to stop big corporations and investors, to make sure that Lamu keeps its UNESCO protection.”
Shizemonize is a 41-year-old painter born on Pate Island, one of the less populated archipelagos. As an artist, it does not escape him that he is the descendant of many generations of fishermen who is the first to break the mold. “I used to charcoal [Argentinian football legend Diego] Maradona on the walls as a child,” he says. “One day, I saw someone who had been hired to paint a mural on the side of the library in Lamu old town – I wanted that life for myself.”
His installation, a welded metal structure symbolizing a sinking ship “is obvious,” he says. “As obvious as the destruction we see around us. People talk of development all the time but the best way to develop things would be in education.”
Shizemonize has already set sights on his next project: “To collect enough plastic from the shores to make a boat for us all to sail in together.”
Anna Mokeira grew up in Anidan, a children’s home on Lamu. Her gift was recognized at an early age, as she doodled comic book stories for her friends.
Now 22 years old, Anna explains how she employed a local basket weaving technique at Lamu Space Station to create space helmets. The visitor is playfully invited to sport one when taking in her work. ”The concept of my paintings reflects people wanting to go to outer space,” she says. “I wanted to promote the concept of a natural future instead.”
When asked how she feels about the ecological damage that she is witnessing on the island, she replies: “I am worried about eco-disaster but have grown up knowing that we can’t choose our future – it doesn’t matter who you are.” Even so, her message is one of empowerment: “I would like women to be more independent and not just stay at home, as can be the case here.”
Lincoln Mwangi is 25 years old and studied at BIFA, an esteemed art college in Buruburu, Nairobi. Even though art had been removed from the high school curriculum in Kenya, it never dampened his desire to create work. His paintings have already been displayed in shows across the world — farther than he, himself, has managed to travel.
His impression upon first arriving in Lamu was intense. “I was born in the city, even the ocean was a new thing to me,” he says. “But going back and forth over the last few years, I am worried by the changes I see happening here.”
Mwangi’s installation, using two mirrors to create an infinity echo of simple articles, provokes the viewer to consider these objects in space and time. “Objects that are used daily are dumped and travel across the ocean,” he says. “I was fascinated by the time it took the bottles to arrive here from Indonesia or Sri Lanka for example. But away from these plastics as external and real, I became more interested in the internal.”
Working on this project has left him with something intangible to take away. “The biggest gift from this show has been that of hope,” he says. “Instead of being alone with our ideas, we came together with different perspectives – that’s powerful.”
From the very beginning, when they cleared the space of its debris their intention was set. “Transforming this derelict space has inspired many people on the island,” Mwangi says, gleefully. “Even one piece of art on the wall can change everything. I have to believe that.”