Kenya is known for its wildlife and land resources like limestone, soda ash, salt, gemstones, fluorspar, zinc, diatomite, oil, gas, and gypsum. Kenya’s land resources were one of the main motives that the British Empire invaded the East African country and occupied it from 1920 until 1963. The Empire’s ultimate goal in Kenya was to take over and claim as much land as they could. Kenyans would either be displaced in the favor of the colony, or be treated as slaves.

Living in the fertile highlands around Mount Kenya, the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest ethnic group – famous for it’s non-violent rebellions – led the march against British occupation. But after years of peaceful protesting, a group called “Mau Mau” emerged from the Kikuyu tribe and fought the British occupation. Although groups across Kenya opposed British rule from day one, the rise of the Mau Mau rebellion symbolized the liberation of years of oppressed voices.

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In the house of the Mau Mau’s leader, Japhlet Thambu, hang portraits of icons of the Mau Mau rebellion. The rebellion eventually led to Kenya’s independence. CC: Mary Beth Koeth

Even though it’s been over 50 years since the British left Kenya, Mau Mau still lives to this very day but between paint, cameras and theatre instead of bullets and missiles. “I chose this name because we are the contemporary revolutionaries using our creative skills to transform our country and continent,” the founder of Mau Mau Collective, Robert Mũnũku, tells progrss.

In the past, Kenyans were under physical conquest by the British. Today, they are under ideological and economic conquest by foreigners and corporations belonging to neocolonialism and capitalism respectively, Mũnũku says.

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Mau Mau suspects seated before a British soldier. Credits: Public Domain

Mũnũku, 33, started using the name Mau Mau in December 2014, when he left the Kenyan mainstream creative industry. “My grandfather was of the Mau Mau generation and just as they were revolutionary then, I felt the need for the same revolutionary spirit now, albeit through the arts.”

Nairobi – the Kenyan city where Mau Mau Collective is based – is a city with apparent socioeconomic segregation. Like many other cities reliant on oil, the drop in oil prices took its toll on the Kenyan capital, adding to its struggle to meet the high demand for affordable housing. In reaction, many developers have increased the supply of high-end properties, leading housing inequality to soar even higher.

Even though the artists have no resources to challenge the inequities of Nairobi’s housing situation, Mau Mau Collective still insists on moving between the walls of Nairobi’s neighborhoods as well as other cities and counties to alleviate the pressure that the situation has on people. With their graffiti and street art, they turn dull walls in public spaces into vibrant pieces of art to communicate the message that people still have power.

Later in October 2015, Mũnũku started ‘Mau Mau Arts.’ He called for the economic and creative independence of artists, which made him face “implicit” opposition. “Some saw my philosophy as a threat to their foreign funding, others as direct competition; sadly, this attitude was a complete misunderstanding of Mau Mau’s vision,” he explains. Later in 2016, they changed their name to Mau Mau Collective, which was more reflective of the inclusive network they’ve built. Although Mau Mau Collective team is made up of a team of three, their network has over 200 creatives across the continent.

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Courtesy of Mau Mau Collective

Mau Mau Collective predominantly works with artists from other counties and eventually plans to have presence in all 47 counties in Kenya.

“We are heading out to Kilifi County – along the Indian Ocean coast – to mentor artists from the community in our three arms of work: film, visual art and performing arts,” Mũnũku reveals, adding that they will be engaging the creatives in a learning process where they eventually create art that resonates within their communities. “Our goal is for this to be the first phase of a longstanding autonomous movement that will spill over to neighboring counties.”

Mũnũku describes Mau Mau Collective as a network more than it is a conventional organization or creative hub. When it comes to visual art, they cover fine arts, graffiti, photography, while in film and performing arts, they cover theater, spoken word and other alternative multimedia artforms.

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Courtesy of Mau Mau Collective

Whereas Mau Mau Collective’s projects are centered on creative education, mentorship, creative economy, and building a Pan-African network, creative education is where they avail the much-needed professional skills to artists to hone their craft to international standards. “We do this [in the] way of free masterclasses and sponsorship programs where we – for example – facilitate the enrollment of artists in regional activities such as festivals and workshops.”

In their mentorship programs, they bring young creatives together with professionals who help them nurture their talent. In the collective’s creative economy philosophy, they create a conduit for the very young same artists to monetize their skills

Last but certainly not least, as a Pan-African network, Mau Mau Collective has a continually growing network of creatives from all over Africa, with the goal of having all African countries represented.

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The GoDown art center in Nairobi. CC: fabian Pic´s

“The public loves art in the streets,” Mũnũku says. “One can immediately feel a sense that more of it is desired simply by watching how people stop to glance at the scattered pieces all over the city.”

However, street art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The Kenyan state views art in the streets as a felony and graffiti is actually illegal unless one gets a license to paint murals, “which is seldom granted, especially if themes are political – as they often are.”

One of the greatest challenges faced by the artists at Mau Mau Collective is ideological. “[A] very few individuals and institutions stand for what we do and we often find ourselves a minority in our cause towards independence from foreigners, a repressive capitalistic economy and neocolonialism,” Mũnũku explains.

So far, they have been self-reliant in obtaining resources, which is not free of forks in the road but has the merit of “independence,” which is the collective’s core value. “I am a visual artist, writer and filmmaker and it is these very skills that I use to earn money to plough back to the collective – same thing is done by my two partners in Mau Mau,” the founder says.  Nevertheless, they have faced political challenges. “We have managed to mobilize a following whose sheer numbers can not be undermined by any attempts of sabotage. When I began Mau Mau in 2015, some forces from within the industry tried to use subterfuge to undermine my work, but this inevitably failed,” he adds.

According to him, Nairobi’s art industry has grown exponentially, with young Kenyans hungry for art – which feeds into the art scene’s enthusiasm and growth. “We are seeing a new generation of Kenyans interested in their own heritage, art and culture. Many more people are choosing to come to the theater and watch a local production,” says Sitawa Namwale, a poet who has been writing and reciting poetry for more than a decade.

“We are the past, present and the future – we are eternal! Our plan is for creatives to eventually take over the running of our country,” Mau Mau Collective’s founder concludes.

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