Under African Skies
Thanks in part to a RISD Graduate Studies Grant, Chilean mixed-media artist Josefina Muñoz Torres MFA 13 GL has spent much of this year delving into nomadic life and its relationship to the notion of home. She spent two months traveling with Turkana nomads in the Ilemi Triangle (disputed land between Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan), exhibiting the work that emerged from the experience earlier this spring in Transient, a solo show at the Nairobi National Museum.
“As an artist, I’m always traveling,” says Muñoz, “and I became interested in architectural interventions along the way. I started wondering how you look at space in the absence of permanent construction and researching contemporary nomadic peoples. The Turkana don’t use tents, which is unusual. They build their structures (akai) from scratch at each location using branches and other materials they find there. It’s a different understanding of space.”
As Muñoz made plans to travel to Kenya and join the Turkana, things began to fall into place, almost preternaturally. She lined up three artist residencies in Kenya and Tanzania, including one at a contemporary arts center known as Kuona Trust in Kenya. “It worked out perfectly,” the artist says. “The Chilean embassy in Kenya agreed to put up an exhibition, and I organized the show at the Nairobi National Museum.”
Once she arrived in Africa, her first challenge was tracking down a tribe. Muñoz moved from village to village in the region asking about the Turkana until she connected with a family of about 30, who welcomed her into their traveling home.
“The Turkana are polygamous, so each family is very big,” Muñoz explains. “Tribes come together and split apart, and the elders decide when. Movement depends primarily on rain. They move when they need new grazing pastures for their goats and cows. It could be a week between moves or as long as a couple of months.”
Since Turkana culture is defined by gender, Muñoz spent her days with the women and children (and a translator), feeding and milking animals, fetching water using plastic jerrycans and cooking the daily meal. The walk to the nearest water source can take up to three hours in each direction. “Everyone sings and tells stories on the way there, but the way back is hard,” says Muñoz, noting that an adult woman typically carries about 20 liters of water, which weighs approximately 45 pounds.
Over time Muñoz came to understand the Turkana concept of home – a concept that includes the surrounding desert and distant mountains, family, the place where you've hung your cooking utensils but not a material construct per se. “Everything is communal,” she says. “They all build and work and eat together as a group. So the idea of having your own personal space doesn't exist.”
The work that Muñoz created in response to her time with the Turkana explores ideas of mobility, private space and ownership. Her piece Temporary Structures employs Turkana building methods to reference mobility and the divergence between private and public space. Light-boxes made of the kind of metal trunks in which each family stores its jewelry and personal documents represent the idea of ownership. 365 Liters of Water (the approximate amount humans need to survive for one year, according to Muñoz’s research) uses multiple jerrycans to express the value of water to the Turkana. And a series of photographs and drawings highlights the splendor of their traditions and the land in which they live.
Response to the exhibition has been extremely positive, says Muñoz. “People are very interested in the work, and they appreciate the fact that I focused on the richness of their ancient culture, not on how poor the Turkana are,” she says.
The artist now hopes to show the work outside of Africa as well. “I want to present this to a broader audience less familiar with the concept of nomads,” she explains. “People think this way of life is something from the past. But the Turkana keep their traditions alive like no other tribe in Africa. It’s a totally different way of living.”