Inspiration Abroad: Embedded Practice in Kenya by Helen Lessick
As an artist, I am interested in creative practices outside my studio. I have initiated and created permanent artworks in an arboretum, wastewater treatment plant, County executive offices and rural grange. My projects have investigated trees, earthworms, food, water and especially soils. Of course this generates more satisfaction than income, so I also work within paid percent for art programs, see www.lessick.net/gallery.
But as the US percent for art construction diminished, Kenya called. A good friend working at the United Nations in New York had transferred to the Nairobi headquarters of the UN Environmental Program. His invitation to explore African soil, a grant from Art Matters and fundraising through United States Artists led to my first trip to Africa and a multi-part, months long residency exploring global environmental efforts and my global awareness of soils, ecology and public practice.
Knowing my impending travels, KDI supporters Toni DeVito and Michael Andreen introduced me to this extraordinary practice. KDI’s vision and goals to build workable civic space in underserved communities meshed with my own. The warmth and generosity of KDI’s LA staff secured an invitation to meet with the Nairobi office.
First Visit: Sept/October 2011
Embedded in a community of agro-pastoralists and community activists, I shared bottled soda in the local one-room office of Kounkuey Design Initiative in Kibera. Ably hosted by Wilson Sagewa and Julius Muiru, I visited Kibera for the first of many times.
Nearly 1 million humans live in Kibera’s tin-roofed shacks without sewage lines at the foot of a dam. Small streams carry human and industrial waste through the hilly and eroding site. Locals rely on frail soils to feed children, chickens and pigs, and to grow hyacinth reeds for women’s crafts. This impoverished slum is home to accomplished artisans, carpenters and renowned sign painters.
My participation, adding visual content to practical form, started with a KDI building in design review, just as in an American public art project. Through local visits and connections, KDI agreed to consider a work of community art for site 3 for the vegetable and craft kiosks. I worked to assemble a team of artisan sign painters who could interpret my research with local traditions and insight. I also took a percentage of my grant to pay local painters and material suppliers, again typical in my field.
I made connections to the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), a non-governmental agency with offices adjacent to UNEP. Soil Research Director, Keith Shepherd, and Program Manager, Samuel Gaturu, graciously invited me to tour their research facilities, soil labs and arboretum. They also arranged a guided two-day tour of soil conditions in western Kenya, and local efforts putting good soil practice into action.
To be continued…