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Sam Hopkins

Published date
19 Jun 2018

The Memory of the Crowd: New Media representations of Kenyan Identities

Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon

In November 2011 the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) opened ‘The History Gallery’, Kenya’s first, public, comprehensive History exhibition, in the history of the country. Whilst this exhibition was a landmark in the official representation of Kenya's history, the narration of Kenya's history was not new. As in the national media and the school curriculum, the history of Kenya recounted in the museum is both mediated, and governed, almost exclusively by ethnicity.

The Memory of the Crowd is an investigation into how identity and narratives of belonging are represented in official narratives in Kenya, and it is a proposal for a very different approach to that narration. Reading the 'History Gallery' of the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) as an exemplar of this official narrative, the current research argues that to continue to focus upon ethnicity as the fulcrum upon which Kenya's identity hinges, is both limiting, reductive, and destructive. To reduce Kenya to a series of ethnic groups fails to understand the way in which identities are mutable, context-dependent and in a state of constant negotiation.

Through careful analysis of display techniques and narratives of 'The History Gallery', my research suggests that ethnicity is both implicitly and explicitly instrumentalised by the exhibition. Informed by contemporary debates on ethnicity and identity in Postcolonial thought and Cultural Studies, this research proposes that the model of ethnicity used by the state ignores and erodes the agency of Kenyans who define and develop emerging, plural and contemporary identities.

My research moves on to propose an alternative approach to represent a plurality of Kenyan identities, exploring the rich and textured subcultural scenes of Nairobi as spaces defined and negotiated by citizens, rather than the singular narrative dictated by public institutions. A key element of this research is 'sheng', the slang of Nairobi, which is both an articulation of these fluid identity formations, and a vehicle with which to trace them. The current research extends my previous art practice in Nairobi, which explores participatory strategies to engage different constituencies in the production of counter-narratives. This practice is in dialogue with a cluster of artistic positions, documentary film practice, crowd-sourced platforms and auto-ethnographic film strategies that nuance and redefine participation and authorial power within the context of representation and identity.

'The Memory of the Crowd' propose a series of artworks that explore narratives of belonging premised on inclusive identities of choice, rather than exclusive identities by birth.


Professor Neil Cummings

Dr Jennifer Bajorek