Willie Wambugu: ‘the Artistic Anthropology of Shoes’

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The Artistic Anthropology of African Shoes
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
April 2012 
Written b4 his exhibition in Brussels in August 2012
Willie Wambugu had been drawing with biros pens for as long as he can recall. But when the self-taught artist decided to take his art seriously, he thought he had to shift from pencils and pens to oil paints.
It was the Italian-born curator Samantha Ripa di Meana who convinced the young Kenyan to get back to what he does well and forget about the oils.
The consequence of her conviction was a recent exhibition of Wambugu’s drawings at Ripa di Meana’s home just off Lower Kabete Road.
Showcasing his work in her garage-turned-gallery, Ripa di Meana has only known Wambugu for a year. They met at Kuona Trust where she was giving a talk on Russian and Chinese contemporary art.
Yet in that short time, she’s not only encouraged Wambugu to stay focused on what he does best, namely meticulous drawing, not oil painting which he’d been dabbling in since he graduated from Kenya Polytechnic in communications technology.
She also encouraged him not to simply see art as a means of making fast cash by focusing solely on the tourist and expatriate art market.
“William has real talent, but if he simply paints to meet what he thinks is the current market in tourist art, he will waste his gifts,” she said, noting that his drawing are met painstakingly deliberate, detailed and delicate.
Describing Wambugu’s approach to his art as “anthropological”, Ripa di Meana has so far helped Wambugu mount two solo exhibitions. The first was late last year which she helped organize one at the Belgian Embassy. In black and white, all his drawings were singularly about locally-used hand tools, including wheelbarrow and rakes, machetes and njembes, in other words, artifacts from everyday Kenyan life. The artist sold almost all his work, just as the curator foresaw.
Wambugu’s recent Westlands show was all about locally-worn shoes.
 “Shoes say a great deal about people, especially their social status and class,” said Wambugu while standing at the entrance of the gallery/garage, presiding over two walls worth of detailed drawings of all sorts of Kenyan shoes, from sneakers, sandels, and gum boots to Nike sports shoes, putiputi, hush puppies and dress shoes made of leather-like plastic.
For Wambugu, shoes also say something about Kenya’s colonial past and the fact that shoes were rarely worn before the colonizer imported them and made them an insignia of the so-called ‘civilized’ African.
Another signifier of the colonial mission to ‘civilize the natives,’ says Wambugu was the school uniform, elements of which he drew and hung on the third garage-gallery wall. Having grown up in Nairobi and gone to schools that compelled him to wear uniforms, he’d carefully drawn everything from the socks, shorts and tie to the school brazer, dust jacket and even the school apron he wore in pre-primary. All had been mandatory, reinforcing a regime that fostered conformity, uniformity and assumed civility.
“What I appreciate about William is the way he takes a topic and interrogates it in detail. In this case, the topic is colonialism symbolized in the shape of shoes,” said Ripa di Meana who will showcase Wambugu’s art in June in her gallery in Belgium, called Roots Contemporary.
She’s already exhibited several of his drawings early this year along with works by other Kenya artists, such as Ato Malinda, James Muriuki, and Paul Onditi.
But the June exhibition will be devoted exclusively to Wambugu’s work, including not just his shoes, tools and school uniforms, but also interiors made out of cardboard which were the first clear signs the curator saw that Wambugu not only had persistence, but originality and courage to work with new media such as shipping boxes, the only materials she initially shared with him.
Subsequently, she has given him art paper from France, India and China on which to draw. She also inspired him to draw not just Kenyan shoes, but also Chinese pairs which she had collected during her years living in that region. Ripa di Meana agreed to share her shoe collection with him, “seeing that colonialism has been followed by globalization, symbolized by Chinese shoes,” she said.
What’s most fascinating about Wambugu’s shoes is that while they might seem like the most mundane of subjects to draw, still when seen in the light of an anthropological approach to indigenous culture, shoes can be speak volumes about the way Kenyans are living today.
Wambugu’s exhibition in Brussels at Roots Contemporary Gallery opens June 14th and runs the whole month.
Currently, nine pieces of of Wambugu’s inventive cardboard creations are on display at Le Rustique restaurant in Westland for the month of April.
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