Arts, science and a trip home to Kenya

I’ve wanted to go freelance for a long time. So why didn’t I? Well it’s pretty bloody scary actually.

It’s possible that no one will ever publish a story I write again in my life, that I’ll have to jack it in altogether and get a job on the dark side (PR). Not that there’s anything wrong with PR. My many ex-journo buddies who’ve crossed over earn a helluva lot more cash than the ones scribbling away on this side.

They generally work for nice, kind people, get raises, promotions and have good perks. But…it’s not journalism, and I love writing, it’s my passion, and I hope I’ll always earn enough through writing to keep it a viable career.

Anyway, last year I made some tentative forays into freelancing. I wanted to see whether my ideas were really any good – it’s one thing having confidence that you’re good in the role you’re in, in my case heading up the arts supplement at large daily newspaper the Echo in Essex, but another thing altogether when you’re pitching at publications as an outsider.

This was one of the pieces I got commissioned to write, it involved a trip home to Kenya, a visit to Nairobi and it consolidated my ambitions to go freelance and have the freedom to write about anything I wanted to.

It was published in Msafiri in their November-December issue, 2012.

You can read it below or in PDF format here: A New Dimension

ART and science are seemingly worlds apart.

But as part of a pioneering global project, Kenyan artists James Muriuki and Miriam Syowia Kyambi are exploring the links between their world of art and that of medical research.

Curated by the Wellcome Collection, photographer James and mixed media artist Miriam have been commissioned to delve into the relationships between researchers, doctors, community members and the politics surrounding it all at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi.

The work – still in its early stages – will go on display at the National Museums of Kenya in December, along with work from artists working at Wellcome funded research centres in five other countries.

But before they even started, Miriam and James had challenges of their own to face up to – as partners and parents to their six-year-old son Simora, they’d never intended to collaborate, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

“It’s amazing how many people ask if we’re still together,” laughs James from their home studio in Nairobi, where russet-red miniature clay bricks are strewn across one surface while tiny tin trunks lined with photos are lined up with military precision on another.

“ Luckily we are.”

The pair originally competed against each other – and even agreed not to talk about their ideas as they developed proposals, but on seeing the potential began to think about joining creative forces to explore the work.

“We did have reservations,” admits Miriam. “Every single aspect of our lives would be completely connected and our working styles are very different.”

“Both of our artistic egos are quite dominant, which isn’t the case in our relationship at all – it’s the opposite.

“James likes working at night, I hate it – and James needs pressure, he’s a last minute worker and I don’t, I’m like ‘no you should’ve gotten it last week, what’s wrong with you?’”

Art meets science

The two found the links between the art and science worlds as fascinating as the differences as they spoke to scientists and doctors.

“Everything was very organised, very logical,” observes Miriam.

“We were kind of overwhelmed by the acronyms – they just go ‘oh the CCL’ or ‘the ASSCR’ and you’re like ‘what’s that?’”

But James adds: “We spoke to one scientist who really got us excited – his philosophies and ideas were very similar to ours as artists.

“We’re both supported to explore certain possibilities within a certain field without saying ‘the outcome has to be this or that.’”

Key to James and Miriam’s research was the centre’s relationship with the Kilifi community, linking with community representatives and opinion leaders – schemes set up by KEMRI to engage with community members, who they’re always working alongside.

“I guess some of the issues KEMRI faced in the past are very different to the ones they face currently – in terms of engagement,” says Miriam.

“It felt like people understood a lot about what KEMRI does, what research and data collection means.

“But they also felt like they also had something to offer in terms of traditional medicine and knowledge – and wanted it to be a two way exchange.”

Miriam and James divided their findings into ideas of trust, context, money and power, exploration and experimentation to work with.

Miriam explains that the little clay bricks will be used to recreate tiny traditional houses which they’ll photograph in the lab – while the tin trunks play with the idea of education – the larger versions being a regular sight at Kenyan boarding schools.

“It’s quite interesting to venture into the scientific world,” says James.

“And yet it’s familiar.”

Further info

The Wellcome Collection is a free London destination exploring the connections between medicine, life and art.

The Art in Global Health project sees artists working in residence at centres in Kenya, Thailand, Malawi, South Africa, Vietnam and the UK to explore the personal, cultural, philosophical and political contexts of health research over a six month period.

The KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme is a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Photographer and curator James Muriuki, 34, explores transition in social environments while Miriam Syowia Kyambi, 32, works with various media around identity and history.

She is also head of art and design at Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi.

They both work in Nairobi where they live with their six-year-old son Simora.

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