Derek Di Fabio – along with other Cherimus members Matteo Rubbi and Emiliana Sabiu – during last spring has been in a residency in Nairobi, Kenya, hosted by the Association Amani. Di Fabio was working on what he refers to as the “zero edition” of a series of forthcoming residencies that will see the collaboration of Cherimus with local associations such as Kouna Trust, Kwani? and Creatives Garage.
In this diary, the artist tell us about his work in Africa and how this experience culminated in Pole Pole, his solo show, open until September 21, at Milan-based TILE project space.
Pole Pole is a Swahili word that has several meanings, all of which are in the semantic field of being slow, calm, soft, quiet, don’t excite yourself much. Pole, by itself, means Sorry, and pole is an English tool for dancing that joins two separate ends.
Tile project space is a white tiled basement, a massive dirty white grid. I didn’t have the chance to visit it before. Everything in it could be calculated and measured. We brought in it more or less 70 buckets of soil from a garden in Muggiò, my hometown. The buckets are those used to hold paint to whitewash houses. Their number was not fixed but the soil always seems less than you think.
We are driving for a while inside a park, and on our right-hand side there appear massive grey spots, thick concrete skins and long noses: one of the biggest vegan animal that I ever met.
The engine is off, we are so close that it’s easy to listen to their noses tearing off the grass. The group is immersed in a huge high-saturated green. The colour shapes the hills. The dimensions of these characters are lost. We can hear them all too well but it’s impossible to understand how massive they are without anything to compare them with.
We leave, and they move away annoyed by the coughing of our motor going off. Their loud volume smoothly glides away, a gently wind pushes chunky hand-knitted grey curtains far away.
Once I was walking with two of my best friends, serious talking, and I was playing with a little compass. I was absorbed into it and I was unconsciously measuring my face with this direction-finder. Round as my nose, perfectly visible in its details but smaller than my eye, big as my bitten nails. It ended up deeply stuck in my ears, with no way to get it out, it was slowly sliding inside of me.
Our van is now stuck in the mud, a muddy puddle deepest than we thought is the only opportunity to get out from this metal frame – Don’t go too far! There could be anything hidden in the grass! The grass is like shoe laces that fight the gravity and grow up, jamming with my legs and saying hello to my belly-button. I walk through the grassy-strings-land hunting for wooden branches. The grass has stolen my shoes and I land in a spot with red soil. More than half-year ago we came here for the first time, we landed when the sunrise was oversleeping, we drove from the airport in a thick dark night, the streetlights seemed too tired to reach the road, they were absorbed by the atmosphere, and turned reddish. On the sides of the road hundreds of people were already walking. We could just see the area around their knees while the van was jumping higher and higher on the way to our destination. Banging our heads against the van ceiling, the background appeared as a mix of wooden poles, plastic sails, smoke, someone turning on a fire cooker, multi-coloured goats. Metal or concrete walls are often painted with brand names or advertisings, while portraits and profiles are standing still next to house doors.
The van lights were our eyes, my gaze sees through a hole in a fist, which is not mine.
Rain season, twelve hours of sun, twelve of night. Most of the days the rain started at the limit of the kind of curfew that we had, it’s a bit frustrating to be spotted on the streets by everyone; does most of the life happen there or behind closed doors?
We were trying to shade our presence and activities from the people and their life, it’s a long and slow process that make a month fly over there; there is a different perception of time, and Emi told me that anyhow it will be the solution to find us here. Everything I know suddenly became one thing, which was violently shaken and scattered across a hypnotizing red sandy ground.
It is been raining for maybe three days in a row; I can’t remember such an unending flush, a dense and fast wall like this, heavy water drops that appear all of a sudden in the space of a second, with nearly no anticipation, the wind does not affect it much. It starts and people get stormy.
Some children are laughing, running up and down the red soil hills on the side of the street, some kids have socks tied at the bottom of their knees, their shoes are getting soaked and they are crossing a tight narrow path, on their right a little cliff, on the left a few poles of abandoned market-stands.
I walk out, alone, it rains. The puddles have become lakes on the street, their colour is not much different from the ground, which is mud. The pools are flat, one after the other, crammed with red dust. The raindrops are feeding them, when the beads crash against the surface, they make the thick water jump, highlighting a round dark shadow underneath.
The distance that most of the people cross everyday is so long that I maybe understand why so many faces were already heading somewhere before the sunrise.
People are waiting for jobs, at the construction materials shop they are standing on piles of bricks, or they’re sleeping on mountain of sand, they eat with their colleagues or rivals, they hang around and talk about what they’re maybe going to use to work that day. There are people waiting around tall concrete and electric barbed wired walls of luxury houses. Someone is going to call them to clean inside.
The dirty road is off the main road, it’s narrow with yellowish sandy paths.
The stones are tinkling and bouncing between the road and the metallic bottom of the public van.
The soil is slowly crumbling down, its speed depends on the passage of moving elements on the road. Stones move this way.
We’re waiting for a lift at the corner where there is a hand-painted sign shop.
Public transports seem faster than private rides because their workers know the tricks to skip the jam. I’m inhaling the road, a big cloud fed by the stones-movement, my throat gets sandy and stalactites have started to drip out my nose. My gaze is drifting away from the itchy cloud. There are some figures on a concrete bench not far away, they are black lumpy compositions covered by the dust of the street. I get closer. Concrete monkeys are winking to me, their fleeting foreheads fall into curvy shoulders. Their skin is lacerated, a large metal net is drawing their outlines.
The dust from the street is restless, my gaze is taking time to figure out that the skin is made of the same material of its inside. I’m close to them, their surfaces are painted and the bench where they sit extends on to a square perimeter that defines a well. It is around a meter deep and I can’t understand how much water is inside. Some inner movements of the greyish liquid surface are reflecting the sky, something is moving inside; they produce concentric circles that expand till the floodgates; Once in a while these circles are cut by a sudden jump. There are drab frogs that camouflage themselves in the sewage. I count how many of them should be heaped up to reach the parapet.
We were in Nairobi, at night time always in Riruta Satellite, on daytime often in Kibera, in Ndugu Mdogo; we are Matteo Rubbi, Emiliana Sabiu and me, as Cherimus, hosted by the Association Amani who is working with street children and running different rescue centres. We came here thanks to a visionary idea of Marco Colombaioni, he came here several times as a volunteer and wrote a project for an international program of art residences in the context of these centres.
We decided to put on the first pilot edition, this zero edition would had helped us to understand the context better through its direct experience. We started to work there and we had already done three projects.
The next part is an extract of a report written to explain our activities to some interesting associations that we met there, like Kouna Trust, Kwani? and Creatives Garage. These are two of the three works that we realized down there: The first project is a wall painting made on the facade of the centre. All the children hosted in Ndugu Mdogo participated in its realisation: during a three-day workshop we asked them to draw their favourite objects on the wall, and then to paint them. The wall got populated by an incredible number of fantasy inventions, which together compose a puzzle of enormous animals, absurd signals and tiny unusual tangled characters, often overlapped to each other. You need to take your time to discover all the details hidden in this painting. The children realised their wall together with the artists: they had only left the street one month earlier, and now Ndugu Mdogo was their home, and the community their family. It was essential that they behaved as the owner of their space.
Above all, the wall is beautiful.
The second project that we made with the children in Nugu Mdogo is a sort of big Chinese dragon, realised on 27 pieces of roundish metal (two of them are bigger and represent the head). During a workshop, we asked the children to think of their dreams, of how they think of themselves in the future. Each of them drew and painted his dream on the metal panels. Then we went with the children to the famous train-rails of Kibera, where you can enjoy a privileged perspective on the slum. There they set up the panels and held them up, showing their dreams. Once we were back at the centre, we tied all the boards together, hanging them from the façade that they had painted.
After the children will leave Ndugu Mdogo, this Dragon will follow them to Kivuli.
The last photo is out-of-focus and it was taken while we were setting up the Dragon.
Installation shots from the exhibition at Tile Project space: