Art Activist Actions in Nairobi

While in Nairobi on a residency trip with my school, Transart Institute,  I did a series of art activist interventions within my Triangular Poison and Danger Colonization textiles. I call them interventions because they were super quick actions, where I placed the textile in-situ for the photo to be taken and the textiles were not purpose made for the events.


Art Activist Intervention: Instituional Colonization, KICC Nairobi, Jan 2024

Staus: complete

Decentralization methods: pop-up, stealth photography, internet

Other methods: narrative, symbolism, intervention, signifigant location, connotative materials

A look at why photography does and doesn't matter in art activism.

It is important to remember that photography in art activism is documentation and not the art (unless of course the art activism is photography). Decolonizing Nyayo House is not a great photo, the textile looks bad, the lighting is all off, the subject is uninteresting, there is an arm, and so forth, this is never going to be a social media favourite. However, it is probably one of the most interesting art activist interventions I will ever make. Nyaoyo house, the building in the background is where the British tortured the independence fighters from back when it was a colony and the locals wanted to overthrow British rule.  Nyayo House is still in use today by the Kenyan government as the passport office—the tents in the image is where applicants wait to apply for their passports. The photo is taken through the window of the defacto national gallery, which was the first British records office in the country. The photo needed to be taken this way because it is illegal to take photos of any official Kenyan government building. I could go on about this, the national gallery isn’t really a gallery, the framing of the photo, and endlessly there is more I could say. The point is that art activism is about the action and not the documentation.


However, a good photograph really does matter. Colonization in KICC is an excellent photo because it displays the narrative of the art activism so well. The KICC is the convention centre in Nairobi from colonial times and is built in the spectacular brutalist or hyper heavy cement institutional styling that also has these usual wood elements. The institutionalism of colonization is perfectly depicted through the styling of the building and the businessmen waiting at the elevator only enhances this. The large hexagonal pillars even had a hook in place from which to hang my textile. The photo is great because it documents the narrative of the art activism so well and not because it is the perfect social media photo.


Decolnizing Nyayo House, Jan 2024, Danger Colonialism textile shown through the national gallery window with Nyayo House in background

Staus: complete

Decentralization methods: pop-up, stealth photography, internet

Other methods: symbolism, intervention, signifigant location, connotative materials

Stealth photography in art activism is where the art activism action lasts for the rapid period it takes to take a photograph or a brief video. It has the advantage of being an activity of low precarity that can be made further safe by costuming such as tourist or (aspiring) influencer; by making the artwork small enough that it is possible to use your own hand to put the artwork into the scene and still manage to take the photo with your other hand; or by taking the photo at a distance. Stealth photography also allows making a general protest artwork and test it in various appropriate places rather than have prescribed location.


For Decolonizing Nyayo House, I was taking images of my textile Danger Colonization at the Nairobi art gallery, which is the defacto national gallery of Kenya. The stone building was an early British colonial office and as a “national gallery” is extremely odd being more a museum with, other than a few named pieces in the entryway, contemporary art that does not reflect the caliber of art that can be seen in other Nairobi galleries—mostly commercial, but there is a very well curated non-commercial space with international quality work. This strange space was an ideal spot to display the problems with colonialism and how they still persist.


I was in Kenya staying at the Untethered Magic artist centre on the outskirts of Nairobi on a trip with students from Transart Institute that is a UK aligned online post-graduate art institute. Our group has divided into smaller groups and we were allocated local artists to lead the groups through various art locations in Nairobi including the Nairobi Gallery. At the gallery, there was also a gallery attendant that acted as a tour-guide in conjunction with our local art hosts. While in the gallery, a second party from our school group came in. With the addition of the third tour guide, it was acknowledged that the building behind the gallery, currently a passport office, was in fact Nyayo House, a place where the British held and tortured Kenyan independence fighters in the final stages of colonialism.


Because of the nature of the trip, while I brought two textile colonization caution signs, I did not research ahead of time specific locations to bring them to. It was a chance confluence of events that led to Decolonizing Nyayo House intervention. With the stealth photography, particularly because my textile elements were not created for the locations, I am considering light actions or interventions. Stealth photography allows the time and space to search for and find these confluences, be they locations or simply good representations of the intended narrative.


The building in the background of the image is Nyayo House and the barred window is the gallery. The white tents are where Kenyans wait in line to get passports. In Kenya, it is illegal to photograph government buildings, so I took the photo through the windows of the gallery, which is the former first colonial government bureau. The photo is not spectacular, the lighting inside is much dimmer, but the bars behind the window grids really enhance the prison feeling of the work.


I view this work as fairly successful. I shared it on the internet with little fanfare, it will live more in the retelling than in the original activity or post. It is unlikely to produce any results, it has not been prominent enough to reach the attention of anyone in authority. So then why is it successful? It has a compelling narrative in a location that needs intervention. It also tells the story that I am able to tell—this is not an issue that I want to appropriate or insert myself into when I do not belong. It also reflects a possible starting point. It would be possible, with local collaboration to build a whole campaign around a repeat of this action.

Further Art Activism Interventions

Status: complete (unsucessful)

This set of interventions on top of the KICC building with the commanding viewpoint has been deemed unsuccessful for lacking power and creating poor/false narratives.


Featured are two different warning signs about the harms of colonization set within a skyscape of a handful of skyscrapers, some greenery and some short buildings. The narrative would read that modernization in the form of skyscrapers would appear to be the colonization in this scene that the textile is warning against. This was not the intended narrative. The massive wealth inequality that colonization and neocolonization has lead to is not reflected in these images.