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Mokoro Kristin-Lee Moolman Joan Otieno Warembo Wasanii
Rose, Risper, Marion, Lourine and Sheila (Nairobi 2021)Photography Kristin-Lee Moolman

Kristin-Lee Moolman’s captivating portraits of a Kenyan creative community

On show in Paris from June 23, a new exhibition of the South African photographer’s work shines a light on Warembo Wasanii, an art workshop and studio space located in the slum of Korogocho in Nairobi

In 2020, just as the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristin-Lee Moolman and Louise Ford were gearing up for their 28 Hats for Lamu exhibition. This show featured photographs of participants of the Shela Hat Contest, a competition hosted in Kenya every two years that sees inhabitants of Lamu, an island off the coast, create hats in response to the community’s growing ecological threats. Ford, a stylist who grew up in Zimbabwe and spent a lot of her childhood in Kenya, and Kristen-Lee Moolman, a South African photographer, began working to document the creativity of these contestants.

The resulting images would eventually become the focus of their 28 Hats for Lamu exhibition, which was used to raise money for the New Leaf Rehabilitation Center in Lamu, a centre for those affected by drug addiction. While working on the show, Ford was introduced to Joan Otieno, an artist and the founder of Warembo Wasanii, an art workshop and studio space she founded in the slum of Korogocho in Nairobi. Otieno’s work and the community she has created piqued Ford’s interest. In no time, she and Moolman began drawing up plans for their collaboration featuring Otieno’s work. For two and a half years – the process was slowed down by the restrictions COVID-19 put on travelling, and meeting physically – Ford and Moolman worked tirelessly to document the community Otieno had created.

Similarly to their work on the 28 Hats for Lamu, the duo photographed a set of artists in Nairobi, Kenya, but this time, the focus turned to the output of the women working with Otieno. For this particular project, Otieno and her students created a collection of costumes made entirely out of waste material collected from the nearby Dandora landfill. Produced and curated by Emmanuelle Atlan of Farago Projects and Sophie Strobel of ERE Foundation, these images are now going up in a multimedia exhibition titled Mokoro, on show at Galerie Mercier et Associés in Paris from June 23 to 25. Following that, they’ll be exhibited in Nairobi and finally be made available as a VR online exhibition space. 

Here, Ford, Moolman and Strobele reveal more about how the project took form and what they hope it achieves.

This project is sort of a continuation of the 28 Hats for Lamu project you worked on – could you tell me what led to this exhibition?

Louise Ford: I was sitting around a dinner table in Shela, Kenya in February 2020, waiting for Kristin-Lee to arrive to shoot 28 Hats For Lamu. We were a collection of artists and journalists hosted by the competition’s founder. I was sat next to a friend and collaborator of Joan’s, Nyambura of Ubunifu Lamu studio. Nyambura told me about Joan and the girl’s project in Korogocho and I was full of awe and curiosity and showed Kristin-Lee Joan’s work the very next morning. She was equally enthused by the story, so we set our paths on meeting Joan and the girls, hatching a plan which would end up spanning two and a half years.

Mid-pandemic, the process was slow and we had to be patient for the right moment to travel. The project was finally made possible when we had the good fortune of meeting Sophie Strobele at one of her ERE Foundation exhibitions in Paris. Sophie loved the Warembo Wassani spirit and couldn’t wait to come on board to curate an exhibition. Sophie partnered us up with Emmanuelle Atlan from Farago Projects, also a curator and producer, who generously supported the project giving us the final backing we needed to ensure the girls and Joan were properly remunerated for their time. Thanks to Emmanuelle’s contacts in the fashion industry, we were able to meet Yann Turchi, the talented hairstylist who collaborated beautifully with the girls, creating unique sculptural hair looks. 

What is the collective hope for this exhibition?

Kristin-Lee Moolman: Our hope is to celebrate the positive impact of Warembo Wasanii Initiative and the power women gain by supporting each other, as well as to create awareness of diverse communities in Africa. Hopefully, this can change any negative stereotypes associated with artists from the African continent.

Louise Ford: It’s been an interesting journey of learning for the whole team. We initially thought that a fundraiser and print sale would help support the studio and provide art supplies for the girls, but after partnering with the ERE Foundation and Farago, who had more experience on philanthropic projects, we realised that a longer-term plan needed to be set in place. Sophie put us in touch with Sabrina Herzog from the Ethical Fashion Initiative Nairobi, who provided valuable insight into the potential brand and craft collaborations for the girls, looking for ways in which their skill sets might be transformed into long-term employment opportunities and therefore financial autonomy. It was Joan’s idea to rent us the garments for our shoot at a fixed day rate rather than a one-off donation. Creating a goods-for-services transaction prepares the girls for future collaboration opportunities and also sets a fair standard for their hard work and self-worth. Our longest-term plan is to try and find ways to sponsor the girl’s further education at fashion and art schools in Nairobi. Something many of them dream of but is still too expensive. Perhaps our partnerships with the Alliance Française in Nairobi will open some doors in that direction. This is an ongoing effort and dialogue.

What can people expect to see at the exhibition?

Kristin-Lee Moolman: A community of fledgling, teenage and grown boss bitches, a multimedia celebration of sisterhood and self-empowerment!

Sophie Strobele: The show will allow you to experience our collaboration with the girls of Warembo Wasanii through the mesmerizing photographs of Kristin and the creative team, supported by video sequences of the girls and their surroundings, interviews with the students and artist of Warembo Wasanii and some of their surprising garments. I think people can expect to be pulled into a dream-like and at the same time powerful demonstration of sisterhood, creativity and solidarity.

What was the process of working on this like?

Kristin Moolman: The first step was connecting with Joan, we specifically wanted to commission everyone for the project and remunerate them fully for their time, so we asked for a quote from Joan who suggested we hire the dresses from the girls, as a way of empowering by recognising and celebrating their work.

We hit the ground running, met everyone and then decided why not shoot? The next few days were spent scouting and shooting with Yann on hair and the support of Sophie and Emanuelle, who interviewed the girls while we were shooting. We really got to know some of the girls who had been with Warembo for a long time, spending days in each other’s company. There was a real connection, rendering the camera invisible as opposed to a method of scrutiny.

Sophie Strobele: Personally, I feel the strength of this project is how it doesn’t fit any category or creative process that people are maybe used to in the fashion industry. Just as Joan takes disposed materials and miraculously gives them a new context, we tried to take all the different ingredients and make something new, that breaks the codes. Even though Kristin and Louise came to us with the idea, they trusted us to add different layers and angles to the project. That’s how we ended up with a collaborative multimedia exhibit, bringing all different skill sets and opinions in one space. At ERE we always favour a collaborative, horizontal working process, which involves a lot of conversations, reassessments, listening and observing, which can sometimes be a bit overwhelming and emotional. But to me, it’s how you end up with something true and sincere. To me, the most important part of the process was going to Nairobi and plunging into the world of Joan and the girls for a few days, in order to best share their talent and story with our community here in Paris.

What was different about shooting for 28 Hats for Lamu?

Kristen-Lee Moolman: COVID [laughs]. Kidding. Definitely, the garments created by the girls – their level of detail and innovation. The project is the spiritual successor to 28 Hats, but more connected on a personal level, we had the luxury of time to work with the girls, as opposed to 28 Hats where Louise and myself were so pressed for time. The other notable difference was the sanctuary and freedom within the walls of Warembo which provides a positive environment in which the girls and young women can thrive.

Mokoro is at Galerie Mercier et Associés in Paris from June 23-25