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KPSP03: Helen’s Story Part 2

Second Visit: March/April 2012

Using scientific research and local observation, I developed designs for a series of community art plaques that could add color and information to the Kibera landscape. The images took the complex relationship of soil, and parsed it roughly into soil and food production, soil and community health, and soil and ecology.

My 12 preliminary designs were presented to a group of community representatives organized by Ibra Maish.  We met on site in the rain, and I explained my vision and shared the preliminary designs. Even rain couldn’t deter their enthusiasm.  They made a few suggestions – texts mostly in English, the official language, so children could read them. Some phrases were in Swahili, the national language, so all could understand.


Wilson and Julius introduced me to the owner of a local metal shop. I personally selected and bargained for the metal to be used in the permanent signs. Two Kibera-area sign painters, Simba Misiani and Peter Asiego, won an invitational competition to work with me on the project. These professionals had not previously worked together, and never had a western conceptual artist as a collaborator. We agreed on the fees and time to make the signs within a tight deadline defined by my plane ticket.


The metal was bought, cut and finished in an afternoon. These blank plaques were painted on both sides, to prevent rust, and delivered to my outdoor studio.  Simba and Peter worked hard on both the imagery and text.  We translated the English into acceptable Swahili, and field tested it with Kenyans working around the studio.

Warming to the project, they took my proposal for a vegetable plaque and questioned my use of a turnip. Though I could buy turnips in Nairobi, they are not common in Kibera. It was a good call, and they worked just as collaborators should.  They painted crossed leaves of a kale-like vegetable that comprised many of the meals in the area.  The twelve plaques were accomplished in three days of intensive painting, discussion and camaraderie. It was a terrific process, reinvigorating my work and I think, the pride and skills of my artistic colleagues. Reviewed and accepted by myself and KDI Kibera staff, the plaques await completion of the kiosks to be installed.

But the story doesn’t end there.  My Nairobi host loved the art plaques and commissioned a new one, at a fair price, to hang in his home. Already the Soil Sample Kenya project led to new work for my collaborator.

The project led to a new opportunity for me. Soil Sample Kenya is part of “Turn Here: Artists Advocate for the Environment’ at the Gershman Y Gallery in Philadelphia opening May 17. Best of all are the experiences and friendships that come from working with others. Wilson and Ibra, Chelina and Jessica, Simba, Peter, Muiru are now part of my creative practice. Working together, from different places, experiences and situations, we can build a better world.

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