Nai Ni Who concluded on a high note on 3
August 2013, after 12 weeks of continuous and varied festival programming,
shifting location from neighborhood to neighborhood around Nairobi. A program
of events uniquely developed by neighborhood teams, offered insight into each
neighborhood area and its residents. Overall, the festival gave a glimpse into
the city’s heart.
The idea for a collaborative artistic and cultural project about the city arose from reflections and discussions held by Nairobi and Stockholm partners - the GoDown, the Museum of Architecture and Culture House in Stockholm - each partner shaping the project according to its context and angle of interest, while also aiming for synergy and interrelation among them. Early in the process, the partners recognized that the theme of urban identity and belonging, which consistently emerged in discussions, was a compelling problematic for common focus.
With respect to the Nairobi context, the issue of urban belonging or alienation can be traced back to the beginnings of the city. In brief, from several discussions convened by GoDown, the sentiment was evident that despite the inception of Nairobi over 100 years ago, the city still seems to be a peculiar physical and cultural phenomenon to its predominantly African population, as the lived experience of Africans in its urban space was and continues to be either on the periphery or in the interstices of formal city development. Because the African was not allowed to ‘naturally anchor’ in the city, ambivalence about belonging and identity in the city has emerged. On the one hand, are city residents strongly compelled by ethnic/traditional culture frames, and on the other hand is a growing generation of young Nairobi city-dwellers, born and bred, who also display dislocation, though for a differing reason.
At first, the GoDown considered to commission and curate only artistic interventions and expressions of Nairobi identity. But discussions (already mentioned) made it clear that each Nairobi resident’s experience and perspective was valid and enriched identity perceptions. This however made the articulation and shaping of the event(s) to be used to explore and express a Nairobi sense of identity and belonging more complex. A wider, inclusive and varied voice, beyond the artistic one, was demanded. Noting how discussions escalated interest for more discourse about Nairobi, the GoDown chose to frame the initiative in the form of a question, hence “Nai Ni Who?” (Who is Nairobi?).
The festival took place at two levels. One aspect occurred at neighborhood level where festival content was developed by neighborhood teams. These teams, ranging in size from six to twelve core volunteer members, were constituted through the GoDown’s existing networks with artists and community organizations. The brief to the neighborhood teams was to showcase aspects of their existing urban space and community life, without necessarily producing new programmatic events or experiences. So they identified those neighborhood assets and experiential opportunities, typical and representative of them, to which the rest of the city could join and celebrate in.
Other content, not specific to any neighborhood, was commissioned and programmed by the GoDown. This ranged from exhibitions, discourse platforms, including social media, city encounters through walking tours and parades. To complement all festival activities and to build a buzz, emotive branding and publicity techniques were utilized: giant street billboards, Nai Ni Who T-shirts and flags; TV ads, news coverage and appearances on radio and TV. Together, all these experiential elements of Nai Ni contributed directly and indirectly to the interrogation of the ‘idea’ of Nairobi city identity.
Over six hundred and fifty artists were mobilized across all neighborhoods through Nai Ni Who, with music and dance as the predominant expressions of artistic celebration and identity. Seventeen artists (musicians and visual artists) were commissioned by the GoDown for specific work that was exhibited in cultural spaces, on the street, in schools and on YouTube. Ten arts/culture spaces also took part in the festival.
Nai Ni Who benefitted greatly from partnerships. Large communication corporations such as with Ogilvy Africa, Hill and Knowlton and the Nation Media Group gave pro bono support while at the community level, arts spaces (One Off Gallery, Michael Joseph Centre, Nairobi Art Centre, Kuona Trust, Sarakasi Trust and the GoDown), community institutions (Gertrude’s Hospital, Kenya Wildlife Society, Karura Forest Educational Centre) and community based interest groups (Friends of City Park, Greenline Trust, Lohana Ladies Circle) also provided free assistance or concessions.
All in all Nai Ni Who was a process of drawing out markers of identity and belonging in the city by offering experiences that provoked Nairobians to contemplate and share their connection with the city. Through the festival, the city was perceived and presented as a dynamic and open-ended reality, shaped and re-shaped in time and space at different levels and in differing ways by the city residents. The city came out as a process of building and undoing, erasing and overwriting, highlighting and concealing. At one level, Nai Ni Who exposed and celebrated the city as a socio- spatial entity with disparate social structures, spaces and opportunities. At another level it heightened conceptual consciousness of Nairobi identity, forcing reflection about history, relationships, empowerment and values – all of which in some way are factors of identity and belonging.
Kilimani: Creativity Calls
The Kilimani program, potential identities of neighborhoods came to light from their selection and shaping of their weeklong program. Kilimani zone’s activities were driven by the presence of Kuona Trust, a visual arts centre in the neighborhood, as well as the presence of a variety of eating and shopping experiences on offer. Creativity, entertainment and leisure emerged as a strong characteristic of this neighborhood area where, in addition to the arts centre, other creative outfits are located: advertising agencies, fashion houses and Internet Hubs.
During its festival week, Kilimani artists displayed their creativity to a mixed reaction by ordinary Nairobians. Cyrus Kabiru’s funky art-eyewear elicited curiosity and fun laughter; the graffiti murals along a major road artery were lauded by passing matatus, but a public art project in a busy market area did not elicit the same reception. The creative installation of a ‘bizarre and artsy ’ clinic that could diagnose all kinds of illnesses (lost love, stress, etc) and dispense prescriptions of edible but oddly colored roast maize cobs in red, blue, green, startled some of the spectators. At one point in the interaction, someone in the market audience decided that the artists were engaging in witchery and soon a potentially hostile crowd gathered. Fortunately the artists were rescued by the local police administration!
In the Kilimani neighborhood, over two hundred artists participated in the arts activities that included a street party/concert, Cyrus Kabiru’s C-stunners public art project, the Planet Tiba art project in Kenyatta Market, a photo exhibition at the Yaya shopping centre and a graffiti installation on Ngong Road.
Artistic Components of Nai Ni Who
Overall, across all the neighborhoods, over 650 artists were mobilized through Nai Ni Who, with music and dance as the predominant expression of artistic celebration and identity. Also carried were photographic exhibitions, visual art exhibitions & installations, street exhibitions (photographs and paintings) and mural painting.
Those artists commissioned by the GoDown for specific work increased from an initial number of nine to seventeen. Their works were exhibited in cultural spaces, on the street and in schools. The number of arts/cultural spaces that took part in the festival also increased from the projected six to ten.
Nai Ni Who benefitted greatly from sponsorship partnerships with Ogilvy Africa, Hill and Knowlton and the Nation Media Group. This support enabled the Nai Ni Who initiative brand design, media communication, the setting up of Nai Ni Who digital platforms and the weekly distribution of the festival calendar in the Daily Nation newspaper.
At the community level, other partnerships came on board: arts spaces – One Off Gallery, Michael Joseph Centre, Nairobi Art Centre; institutions including Gertrude’s Hospital, Kenya Wildlife Society, Karura Forest Educational Centre; community base groups such as Friends of City Park, the Greenline Trust and the Lohana Ladies Circle.
Going forward Nai Ni Who has seeded several threads that the city can capitalize on and, indeed, some discussions have commenced with the City County on the possibility of the continuation of City Centre Walking Tours and strengthening of neighborhood destinations as public spaces for leisure, excursions, arts & entertainment, and business.: e.g. City Park in Parklands, Kibera Crafts, Neighborhood Markets such as Jericho Market.
Since the official conclusion of Nai Ni Who Festival, some neighborhood coordinating teams such as the Buruburu team are determined to continue activities. In this particular neighborhood during the festival, resident artists formed a neighborhood artists association to serve them in expanding their opportunities. The Buruburu team also sees an opportunity to give visibility to the numerous small enterprises in their neighborhood – they hope to explore the idea of a neighborhood ‘business directory’ and to link this to the Nai Ni Who website.
More generally, the value derived by those active in neighborhood teams, as stated by them in a debrief with the GoDown at the beginning of September 2013 included the following:
There is an appreciation of the city’s uniqueness and diversity. Nai Ni Who offered a chance to think about Nairobi: “its hardworking residents who ‘hustle’ early to late each day”, “to look at people for who they are, to feel the city as it is, to not judge the people and places of Nairobi.” One example was how the welcome and openness of the Asian community into their temples was a pleasant surprise to those who took part in the temple tours.
The festival highlighted the challenge of crossing social boundaries in the city. Unlike in social media spaces where it is easy to interact “horizontally” and “vertically” Nairobians shared strong perceptions of social segregation. Thus the interactivity facilitated between neighborhoods was appreciated as ‘big value’. The festival made the city more democratic – freedom and empowerment to choose your program, to show what you wish, to meet others and spaces for interaction between social classes was created. In addition, Nai Ni Who gave residents a chance to know what and who is in their neighborhood, providing a forum to discuss what’s gone right or wrong. For example, public space contradictions were evident – lack of open space in many neighborhoods, shrinking spaces in areas presently ‘endowed’ and encroachment and grabbing of public areas.
Historical value was brought to the fore, particularly during the walking tours where the “stories behind buildings and streets” gave connectivity and meaning and sparked more interest in the history of the city. As these stories were further shared in social media, even greater interest was generated. Nai Ni Who was a journey of discovery, highlighting how more opportunities to enjoy Nairobi should be consciously nurtured.
A clear high point was at the end, whTo be able to parade along Uhuru Highway, a primary artery in the city, and to conclude with a free concert in Government Square was an empowering act and a lot of fun.
Next Project Phase
For the next and final phase of the project, the GoDown has plans to do the following:
1. Firstly, to continue survey and written analysis of the impact of Nai Ni Who.
2. Secondly, to work with one or two neighborhood teams more deeply, with the aim to having the Nai Ni Who website sustainable, relevant and useful to the neighborhoods (to complement this, it is will also continue the Nai Ni Who social media platforms).
3. Thirdly, to leverage emerging programmatic opportunities related to Nai Ni Who. Interest has been shown in continuing identity talks and using the Nai Ni Who framework in other cultural events e.g. celebrating Kenya @50.Finally, the GoDown will collaborate and support, as is possible, the Stockholm component of City Identity curated by the Museum of Architecture, Stockholm, and shall attend the finissage in Stockholm in February 2014.