ART AFRICA spoke to Elias Mung’ora
Nairobi- Based artist Elias Mung’ora work focuses on the urban environment and the living conditions in Nairobi, the material remains of past lives, and the way the appearance of physical spaces is altered and transformed by the interactions of people in those spaces. Mung’ora is interested in the political and economic history of Nairobi and how this history is reflected in its present-day physical environment.
Elias Mung’ora, Untitled( Footprints No.4), 2017. Acrylic and photocopy transfer on canvas. Courtesy of Circle Art Agency.
ART AFRICA: You work a lot with photographs, using image transfers to build up what is the initial layer of your compositions. How did you come to use photographs as a starting point for your work?
Elias Mung’ora: I gather images from various sources, the Internet and social media, print media, old archival photos and videos, and I mix and layer these with the many images that I’m constantly shooting in and around Nairobi. I’m very interested in the way we remember things, what we choose to record and what gets left out. These images are a means to try and create a vision of this city and a narrative of its evolution.
In your paintings, there’s a lot of layering of paint and images, a kind of game of obscuring and revealing different sections of the composition and its build-up. Could you please tell us more about why you work in this way?
If you think about Nairobi and that first encounter with this city – I didn’t grow up in Nairobi, and I’ve been living here for eight years now – there’s an initial idea you get of Nairobi. Then there are the structures that guide the way it operates, rooted in the original design and plan for Nairobi as a colonial administrative centre, and these reveal themselves over time if you pay close attention. The idea of having visual elements coming in and out of focus in the paintings develops out of observing the tension between the more apparent qualities of the Nairobi and the underlying structural realities of the city. There is also a fictive quality to the work I make. I don’t know the people who inhabited the spaces I’m looking at or the everyday events in those areas, and so I am, very much, imagining and making it up as I go along.
Elias Munga’ora, Untitled (Footprints No. 5), 2017. Acrylic and photocopy transfer on canvas, 116 x 300cm. Courtesy of Circle Art Agency.
How has your understanding of Nairobi evolved since you moved here, and how has that played out in your work?
Nairobi is so many cities in one. I feel more comfortable in certain neighbourhoods than I do in others – if I go to an affluent neighbourhood then I feel very uneasy and out of place. In Nairobi, where I feel at home depends very much on the space I occupy in terms of class, something I hadn’t experienced in my hometown, Nyeri. I’ve become more attentive to these layers, and fractures, and feel in a sense, that I might never understand entirely the operation of Nairobi – but I see now that I have a lot of material to think about and work with.