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Nairobi: New Works

A Victoriapithecus skeleton in reconstruction at a Niarobi museum.

Photographer Brendan Bannon’s chronicle of his adopted city at El Museo

A little over a century ago, when they were hooking up the system that would make Buffalo the first electrified city in the United States and the world, the city of Nairobi, Kenya, on the African continent, didn’t exist. It was established in 1899, not as a city but a watering place/supply depot on the Uganda Railway line. Nairobi was named for words in the Masai language meaning “place of cool waters.”

The place built up, slowly at first, then more rapidly. Through the first decade of the 20th century the population hovered right around 10,000. Today Nairobi is the capital and largest city of Kenya. The present population is about three million, and expected to rise to five million by 2025.

Photographer Brendan Bannon, who works sometimes in Western New York, sometimes in Africa, has undertaken a project to document the growth and development of Nairobi, among other African cities. The idea of the project, he says, is to “explore the city as a zone of constant and chaotic invention, and its residents as the inventors of their present lives.”

A show of his stunning recent photos from Nairobi is currently on display at El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera on Allen Street.

Think of Nairobi as a frontier town of the old West, but as a modern world city also with slums crammed with hut dwellings of corrugated sheet metal and other castoff materials and lacking running water, but with posh residential areas, too, and a modern business district of high-rise office buildings. Nairobi is home city to numerous Kenyan businesses and more than a hundred major international companies. There’s even a Nairobi Stock Exchange, the second oldest stock exchange on the African continent.

And continuous construction and development. An intriguing shot from an unidentified high vantage point, through an equally unexplained possibly occupational function protective screen shows what looks like a road construction project below, and beyond, extending into the distance, clean and attractive middle-class mid-rise housing.

Another shot is of a complex of rebar and related iron support materials, substructure for a new major highway under construction.

The frontier town aspect is nowhere more evident than in a photo of the trackside galleria covered area of a busy railway station, the platform apparently unpaved, and ambiguous as to composition, maybe mud wash, not yet cleaned up, after some flash flood event, maybe an exposed stratum of uneven rock.

But lest someone think of Nairobi as merely a new place without a past, one photo is of a skeleton in reconstruction in a museum of the creature Victoriapithecus, thought to be the first of our primate predecessors to quit arboreal life to adopt a terrestrial existence, a move that eventually lead to bipedalism (including the more advanced form of bipedalism of riding a bicycle). By way of reminding that this area is part of the East African Rift, the source area for the fossils that constitute the evidence for the current story about human evolution. This is the home territory of Lucy, some three million years ago. (Victoriapithecus came down from the trees some 12 to 20 million years ago.)

Another photo is of a makeshift-looking pole structure and thatch roof gazebo along a solitary mountain path, overlooking a mountain valley and cloud-ringed main promontory among other mountains in the distance. A makeshift painted sheet metal sign advertises the location as a “Wonderful Photographic Site,” noting the elevation above sea level of 8,000 feet. Mountains visible from Nairobi on a clear day includes Mount Kanya to the north and Kilimanjaro to the southeast.

Other photos include portraits of individuals at work: a post-race cool-down walker at the horse track, a spoken word poet and bread seller seen through the shiny glass of his bread display case, a photo supplies shop owner posing in front of his shop of corrugated sheet and flattened drum metal construction, brightly painted in large blocks of primary colors, characteristic embellishment, it seems, for structures of such materials, even in the slums. A slum zone photo shows the grounds looking gritty after a rain shower, apparently, but the structures all the more bright and glistening and colorful for the recent drenching.

This looks like a land of abundance, but not overabundance. No glut of plastics choking the environment. No signs of overconsumption choking the populace. Not to overlook the poverty (but we have a land of superabundance, and chronic and dispiriting poverty along with it).

An interesting place and interesting project, vividly presented in these photos. The Nairobi exhibit continues through August 30.

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