Photographs: Kevin Tosh.
I’ve been sitting on this post for a while now (although I suppose another way to say it would be that I’ve been “lulling over this post”). You know when you have so many thoughts that the only way to put them in words is to write them down, but then writing them down only makes them feel more and more confused and at some point you’re kinda tripping over everything and you can’t really tell whether there’s a point or whether the point will be legible to anyone reading except for yourself or whether even *you* can actually see the point? Well. Yes. That.
At the beginning of the year, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. One of the things that most stuck with me during this trip was this room where you can see the clothes of the genocide victims; the clothes which they were wearing when they were murdered. They’re suspended on metal wire behind a glass window, illuminated from the bottom by lights set into the display and from the top by skylights. And there they are: empty and still and silent and solemn; they remind me of a scarecrow.
This image returned to my mind a few weeks later, at the “Kikulacho Ki Nguoni Mwako” (“What Eats You is In Your Clothes”) exhibition at the Circle Art Agency in Nairobi at the end of January. The three day event was organized by Ichyulu as a way to showcase ChichiaLondon’s collection which was inspired by the cultural tradition of lesos on the East African coast. For those not familiar with lesos/kangas, these are pieces of patterned fabric which tend to have sayings that range from the classical and timeless, as in the title of the exhibition, to more 21st Century quips (“Ukinidiliti mwenzako atanidanlodi” meaning “If you delete me your friend will download me”).
Even as they both told stories of clothes, these two spaces were as different from one another as could be. The Ichyulu exhibition was sunny: full of colors like yellow and bright red and arranged along a brightly illuminated white room. While we were there a group of chattering folks gathered on one end of the room, taking short videos of themselves laughing and chatting for Snapchat.
But maybe it was this difference that stuck with me so much, so much that I’m still sitting on it weeks later. When we hear of a disaster that happened, the news that comes to us is of numbers and anonymous identities. For instance, the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial are home to over quarter a million genocide victims. But the room of clothes is something else. It reminds you of the individuality of these characters. Clothes tell stories. Sometimes the story is about wanting to present ourselves in a certain way, sometimes it’s about liking how a certain color or design makes you feel, sometimes it’s about identity, and other times it’s just about needing to get dressed so that you can leave your private space. But we live through the stories of our lives– whether beautiful or happy or sad or momentous or disappointing– in clothes.
As I was “sitting on this post”, one of the ChichiaLondon dresses featured in this exhibition was worn by Nana Yaa in An African City, Swahili phrases jumping up and out of the screen to me as she sits in a therapist’s office. Mental illness is so stigmatized in our societies– I don’t think this is particularly unique to Kenya but I will speak specifically of my own experience in Kenya– that people don’t want to go see the doctor because it feels like admitting that one is defective in some way, even though that’s not the case. You get a cold, you take medicine for it. Sometimes we need treatment for our spirits too. But anyway. Seeing Nana Yaa in that dress seeking the kind of help that so many of us don’t really talk about brought it home to me. And then I sat on this a little while more. And then decided to write it down.
So this isn’t really a review of Ichyulu’s installation, which I enjoyed many things about. Such as: pictures of the too cool for school 2ManySiblings in the clothes, which, if you missed the exhibition, you can catch on this Tumblr.
“There can be no depth without surfaces.”
-Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser.