STIRring Together: Osborne Macharia and Kabage Karanja on KEJA and home in a 'void'

STIR discusses the Kenyan visual artist and architect duo's idea of a utopian African future through KEJA and the Anthropocene Museum at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jun 15, 2021

Powerful, passionately driven narratives that intertwine history and culture to project a more hopeful, definitely colourful, more sustainable future for the African populace, particularly a more vulnerable youth, underline two distinctly home-grown interventions at the La Biennale di Venezia this year. The first, KEJA, Nairobi slang for “home”, stems as a collaboration between K63.Studio by photographer and visual artist, Osborne Macharia, and Cave_Bureau by architect and researcher, Kabage Karanja. The second, Obsidian Rain, is Cave_Bureau’s standalone third exhibit in their Anthropocene Museum project that uses sophisticated tools to record, architecturally and geologically, caves as spaces of habitation; as close as we could come to nature’s manifestation of a museum. 

  • Osborne’s ‘Kawangware Defense Force’, showcasing the youth of Kawangware with advanced helmets to monitor crime through their rooftops, and relaying to the police using untraceable signals became the inspiration for KEJA | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Osborne’s ‘Kawangware Defense Force’, showcasing the youth of Kawangware with advanced helmets to monitor crime through their rooftops, and relaying to the police using untraceable signals became the inspiration for KEJA Image: Courtesy of K63.Studio
  • Gikosh by Osborne Macharia showcasing African protagonists in an alternate, futuristic society, with enhancements salvaged from airplane parts | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Gikosh by Osborne Macharia showcasing African protagonists in an alternate, futuristic society, with enhancements salvaged from airplane parts Image: Courtesy of K63.Studio
  • Photographer and visual artist Osborne Macharia | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Photographer and visual artist Osborne Macharia Image: Steve Biko

Osborne, now settled in Vancouver, Canada, states his work to be delving into the issues of, and operating on the precipices of culture, identity, and fictional narratives through the lens of Afrofuturism. One of the leading artists around the world to be operating within this realm, despite it now being a bona fide genre in film and literature, Macharia admits to not having been aware of his work definitively fitting in and furthering African representation in new media, until an interview with CNN. His highly stylised photographs further narratives of inclusion and empowerment for minority communities even within the African status quo. Through neon drenched visuals, and an almost makeshift sense of physical enhancement accompanying his protagonists, set amid a future borrowing heavily from Africa’s past and tribal culture, Macharia transforms narratives and seemingly simple lives, from repressed to superheroes in their own right, their own universe: one morphed photograph at a time.

  • Cave’s Anthropocene Museum project uses 3D scans to map the profiles and interior environments of caves as alternate spaces of co-habitation | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Cave’s Anthropocene Museum project uses 3D scans to map the profiles and interior environments of caves as alternate spaces of co-habitation Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau
  • Exploded drawing of the Shimoni caves | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Exploded drawing of the Shimoni caves Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau
  • The Cave_Bureau team inside the Shimoni Caves, including co-founders and directors Kabage Karanja and Stella Motegi | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    The Cave_Bureau team inside the Shimoni Caves, including co-founders and directors Kabage Karanja and Stella Motegi Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau

Kabage, along with Cave_Bureau’s founding partner and director, Stella Mutegi, seeks a more spatial exploration of the African past and its culture to gauge questions for the future that fit pertinently with curator Hashim Sarkis’ question for this year’s Biennale: How will we live together? Within the anthropology of the caves, the geology of the rocks that form them, and through the historical narratives enshrined in their walls, Cave_Bureau subverts the narrative of the primeval residence being the hut, while also seeking a reinvention of the idea of a communal, conjugal space: not just as spaces of communion and leisure, but also as spots where revolutions were planned and new institutions realised. 

  • KEJA is an intervention designed for the void, the conglomerate of urban slums at the precipice of ‘developed’ towns, albeit with a distinct colonial stamp in Nairobi’s case | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    KEJA is an intervention designed for the void, the conglomerate of urban slums at the precipice of ‘developed’ towns, albeit with a distinct colonial stamp in Nairobi’s case Image: Cave_Bureau and K63.Studio
  • KEJA is assembled using repurposed material: metal pipes, corrugated sheets, and the like | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    KEJA is assembled using repurposed material: metal pipes, corrugated sheets, and the like Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau and K63.Studio

Emerging from the shadow of its neo-colonial past, the resultant and persistent economic divide in Africa continues to affect lives and livelihoods to this day, essentially tampering with the element of freewill, the will to choose one’s direction of life, owing to external factors. The K63 and Cave communion laments over the fact that wider representations of African locales often present whitewashed perspectives without a well-balanced, local point of view. The team behind KEJA thus theorises their intervention in amongst the vastly variable urban context and morphology of Nairobi in terms that may also be applicable in different contexts and towns over the globe. The nomenclature of a certain degree of urbanisation that may also be viewed as a progression across the Anthropocene, or a move motivated by tangible aspiration, is summed up in the Origin, Void, and the Made. Literal and metaphorical at the same time, the Origin is the vast expanse of rural areas from where people move to cities in the hopes of better employment and a better life. Void seems to be the middle ground, a vortex, a literal void caught between the two ends, while Made epitomises high end, from residences to opportunities. 

The installation and its designed visuals also feature Osborne’s work that pays homage to the older generation, literally and symbolically as the structure is built over existing roofs | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
The installation and its designed visuals also feature Osborne’s work that pays homage to the older generation, literally and symbolically as the structure is built over existing roofs Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau and K63.Studio

Interestingly, Void and Made form a compelling proposition for at least all Tier-II cities in the developing world, wherein a mass of working class dwellings and an affluent district or neighbourhood coexist in close proximity. Mumbai, perhaps, is a prominent example that immediately comes to mind. However, looking at the conditions within the Void, “coexist” may sound like a bit of a stretch. These are boundaries that Kabage claims may be problematic, but as being what they are. In this particular case, what sets Kawangware and Lavington apart from a global generic study, bearing conclusive evidence even within their eponym, is a distinct historical and colonial stamp. Lavington, quite literally uplifted, overlooks from upon a hill the slums of Kawangware.

Typical east and west elevations for a KEJA unit | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
Typical east and west elevations for a KEJA unit Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau and K63.Studio

KEJA then sets its eyes squarely on the youth, on the African millennial, full of promise, and looking for an escape from their current conditions. The intervention claims a new cultural, social, technological, and even political awakening among the African youth to be responsible for a movement, a desire as simple as moving out and starting afresh, but an idea akin to a brewing storm in scope. Osborne and Kabage feel and acknowledge that artistic expression may hold the key to the liberation of these individuals, but the scarcity of land and resources may pose a formidable challenge. 

  • The KEJA display and installation, to scale, at the Arsenal in Venice | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    The KEJA display and installation, to scale, at the Arsenale in Venice Image: Courtesy of Kabage Karanja
  • Typical east and west elevations for a KEJA unit | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    The structure spans two level with a multipurpose layout to foster individual expression Image: Courtesy of Kabage Karanja

The idea behind KEJA stems from one of Osborne’s works, the KDF or Kawangware Defence Force, comprising the teenagers of the Narobian town transforming into vigilantes at night. The youth dress up in a cyberpunk-esque clothing, scrambling through rooftops, watching crime in the neighbourhood, and relaying SOS calls with their makeshift yet technologically advanced helmets to the police. A similar narrative of empowering the Kawangware youth, and the African millennial at large, runs through the very spirit of KEJA that uses salvaged material including metal pipes and GI sheets to forge a dwelling, a performance space, a studio, and whatever its user needs it to be. Merging visual aesthetics, a more traditional building technology repurposing resources, interconnectivity, and sustainability, KEJA proposes a new building typology in the Void that finds its footing over existing structures as a “working roof” that also serves as a rain catcher and a private viewing deck, along with being modular enough to allow each unit, or multiple of them, to be tailored to the needs of individual clients.

  • Obsidian Rain, suspended from the ceiling of the central pavilion at the Giardini in Venice | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Obsidian Rain, suspended from the ceiling of the central pavilion at the Giardini in Venice Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau
  • Multiple obsidian stones are suspended to mimic the profile of the Mbai caves, sheltering a roundtable beneath for discussion on the installation | KEJA and Obsidian Rain | Osborne Macharia, Kabage Karanja | STIRworld
    Multiple obsidian stones are suspended to mimic the profile of the Mbai caves, sheltering a roundtable beneath for discussion on the installation Image: Courtesy of Cave_Bureau

Along with collaborating alongside Osborne and K63.Studio on KEJA, Cave_Bureau and Kabage bring Obsidian Rain, their third exhibit in the Anthropocene Museum project to the Venice Biennale this year. The almost sculptural display is a transposed section of the Mbai cave in Kenya, inhabited in the mid-20th century by anti-colonial freedom fighters, who used the chambers to plan their resistance. The cave’s shape, form, and sanctum is replicated by suspended obsidian stone structures, sheltering a roundtable discussion between Kabage, Stella, Hashim and other curators from the Biennale, and a prominent geologist, redefining convening in a cave in a manner that transcends associated spatial and social constructs, yet essentially retains its strong political intent.

STIRring Together:
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.

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