Earth Matters Around the Web: Somali Refugees in Kenya

Earlier this month the United Nations, the government of Kenya, and that of Somalia reached an agreement to help Somali refugee in Kenya return to Somalia voluntarily. Kenyan Internal Security Minister Joseph Lenku has said that the refugee camps must close, however the UN has stated that this is not an official command and that refugees will not be forced to leave.

More than 500,000 Somali refugees live in Kenya and refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma are so large that they resemble cities. In fact, Dadaab is the third largest city in all of Kenya and many residents have spent their entire lives there. The camps began when Somalis fled the collapse of their central government in 1991 and have grown since then as Somalis have continued to flee internal conflict.

Mainly due to security concerns and public pressure, the Kenyan government desperately wishes to disband the camps. However many Somalis do not wish to return to Somalia because it remains a dangerous place to live with little future for their children; many do not even consider themselves Somali having never lived there. Despite Africa having historically porous borders, current politicians are extremely reluctant to integrate refugee populations despite the fact that they can become valuable assets in terms of resources and human-capital.

The plight of the Somali refugees in Kenya and refugee camps in general, brings to mind Otobong Nkanga’s sculpture The Limits of Mapping, which is shown below. The Limits of Mapping is a table shaped as a map with strong geometric borders and giant wooden rods piercing key locations making it difficult for the viewer to examine the piece. The table is significant because it alludes to the piece of furniture over which colonial rulers historically created borders and defined nations. The wooden rods portray the violence of this process which ignores the lives of those who occupy the land and who bear the consequences of the decisions.

In Kenya right now, more than 500,000 Somalis are confined to refugee camps and denied human rights because of where they were born. The Kenyan government is right to be concerned about security problems caused by refugee camps, but refusing to integrate them is not a long-term solution when they have nowhere else to safely go.


Otobong Nkanga b. 1974

Nigeria Limits of Mapping 2010

Wood, acrylic paint, metal

Guest Voices: Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter

Today’s guest post comes from a pair of artists known collectively as Mwangi Hutter, who were featured in the Earth Matter’s exhibition. True to form and to this pair’s sensitive and poignant work, today’s post is a poem, or, more correctly, a poetic reflection on our relationship to planet Earth.

The sound of the world

Mwangi Hutter

The sound of the world has changed

it surrounds us with its deafening call


to repeat

to change

to blame

there is nothing I can do but listen

and watch while my tears blur the painful images

while I shake my head in disbelief

knowing I must believe.

if I don’t, who will listen to the screams to make them go away?

who will take them, engulf them, transform them

what can I do? I swallow the images that burn my memory.

I am dazed. I cannot allow

I allow it to happen

I am part of it

I don’t want to have any, any part in it

resignation marks my face, repulsion, sadness

and again disbelief

and again the questions arise

what can I do

do I do

do I do enough?

there is never enough done

until it stops

until the images fade to leave light


hurt is blinding me

making me numb

I need not judge nor care nor wonder

it is as it is

‘violence is a part of human nature’

I want no part of that part

I have to decide. Am I here to be within myself

or do I want to stand beside me and let them beat

kill the mother

whip the child

teach him to hold a gun

gun them down

download their useless

leech the bleeding earth

run from

hide through

never feel resposible




defeat humanity.

I will need to scream

to turn the inner scream outwards

to aim it

to kill the killers killing

but softly and strongly

need to believe that

if we don’t, I don’t know what will happen.


Dandora Pool
video, 2012
The View
video, 2012
Single Entities
video installation, 2013

Earth Matters Around the Web: Natural Disasters, the Environment, and Global Connections

Earlier this month Typhoon Hiayan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, wreaked havoc across the Philippines, claimed thousands of lives, and caused incredible amounts of physical damage. Typhoon Hiayan has been spoken of as a “once in a lifetime” example of extreme weather by politicians and the press. However, such extreme acts of nature are becoming increasingly common and scientists are increasingly finding reasons to link these occurrences to climate change.

This week the latest round of UN climate talks has been taking place in Warsaw, Poland. The representative from the Philippines claimed that climate change was to blame for the strength and destruction of Typhoon Hiayan and that such disaster was man-made. This leads one to the question: if greenhouse emissions from wealthy countries are causing natural disasters abroad, how should those who suffer be compensated?  This morning representatives from most of the world’s poor countries walked out of the meeting after the EU, the US, and Australia all insisted on postponing the discussion of compensation for extreme climate change until 2015 at the earliest. African countries are many of those believed to be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The discussion happening in Warsaw at the moment highlights how intertwined the world is; environmental destruction is an international problem, however the burden falls mostly on the global poor. This brings to mind the painting by Jerry Buhari Fall and Spill History. This painting has two main narratives: one is the beautiful autumnal colors of trees in North America, and the other is the twisted beauty of oil spills in the Niger Delta, which exist in order to heat homes in the United States. Buhari’s piece expresses the importance in understanding that our modern way of life is not without consequences.

Fall and Spill History

Jerry Buhari
b. 1959, Nigeria
Fall and Spill History
Acrylic on canvas
Collection of Linda Lawrence, Salina, Kansas



Earth Matters Around the Web : Teen Writing Workshop in African Art

A short time ago, teens and teachers participated in a workshop at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art in our esteemed Warren M. Robbins Library. Building their critical writing skills around the Earth Matters exhibition and the Feldman method of art criticism, students took an intellectual journey through the exhibit. The video documents their adventure, check it out!

Guest Voices : Candace LaRocca

Today’s guest post comes from Candace LaRocca, one of the docents at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and a great friend of the museum. During the years of preparation for Earth Matters, LaRocca has been involved in numerous aspects of the show, most notably helping to translate for our artists from Francophone Africa. In the following post, LaRocca gives a warm and personal account of her experience with working with two artists from Morocco, Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun.

From time to time, docents are asked to help out in other areas in which we have a special interest or skill.   I was asked if I could do a rough translation of the one-hour interviews that Karen Milbourne, curator of the Earth Matters exhibition, had taped with the artists Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun in Morocco.   I saw this opportunity as a “win/win” situation; it would allow me to brush up on my French at the same time that I would  get to know the artists’  work,  which would assist me in giving tours of Earth Matters!

By accepting this assignment I was able to become very familiar with their work.  The honor of transcribing Dr. Milbourne’s interview required listening to the audiotape a multitude of times!!!.  The benefit was that I felt that I actually was “on location” with her and the artists in Morocco!   I could hear birds chirping in the background during Echair’s interview, I could hear other conversations and work going on during Rahmoun’s interview, and these details made a powerful impression that transported me to Morocco and the artist’s studios. It was amazing to see how much they covered during their one-hour conversation: upon transcription, each interview would be about 14 typewritten pages!

While Echair was unable to come to Washington D.C. for the installation of his work, Anthony Stellaccio (the Earth Matters Project Manager) arranged for the installation of his work to be handled via “Skype,” another first-time opportunity for both me and the museum. We started at 8:00 AM.  The installation site was set up as a mini movie set.  I sat in a corner while the screen was focused on Echair’s work. I interpreted while he worked with our design team for the installation of “Ascension.”   I was quite relieved to see him smiling, drinking a cup of Moroccan mint tea and holding his little girl on his lap in his living room. It seemed such a nice family setting and so relaxed and charming. I shared with him that I was concerned for his personal well being since he had spoken so emotionally with Dr. Milbourne about his work and concerns.   His response was “Yes, my work is not a joy; but someone has to represent these people.”


Gallery shot of Hassan Echair’s Ascension

Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

I was able to meet Younès Rahmoun personally during the opening of the exhibition; he was equally kind and caring.   As soon as I introduced myself, he wanted to let me know that there was another French- speaking artist who might need some help.   I recalled that he and Dr. Milbourne had discussed the work of Wolfgang Laib during their interview and let Younès know that Laib’s Wax Room was on display at the Phillip’s Collection (a museum of Modern Art in DC).   He managed to see the work prior to his return home and commented that it was “awesome.”

As a docent, I now have the opportunity to add a personal perspective to my tours as a result of my meetings with these artists.  Both Echair and Rahmoun are very deeply involved in their work and committed to expressing the needs and concerns of the people they represent.


Gallery shot of Younes Rahmoun’s Kemmoussa

Plastic bags and compressed nails, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

Earth Matters Around the Web: Climate Change

About 30 headlines down on my Yahoo News page, after updates on movie premiers and election updates, was an article on climate change released just an hour before writing this post. The article was entitled Greenhouse gas volumes reached new high in 2012: WMO, and as the headline reveals, the World Meteorological Organization has analyzed data showing that greenhouse gases, despite conservation efforts, reached a record high last year.

According to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, a non-binding environmental treaty, many nations from around the world agreed to limit climate change to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to the new data released by WMO, our gas emissions, by 2020, will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than that is thought needed to stay under the 2 degree mark. Instead, some predictions have us reaching the 2 degree mark by mid-century.

What is the significance of the 2 degree mark?

The 2 degree temperature increase set as a maximum by the Copenhagen Accord is not a safety zone. By many accounts, reaching the 2 degree mark will spell long-term environmental disaster. However, many scientists argue that even temperature increases of 1 or 1.5 degrees will wreak global havoc.  The significance then is that with such a small margin for error and a growing awareness of carbon emissions and global warming, humanity is still failing to neutralize the single most important global threat of our age.

Reading this unfortunate news, I am reminded of the work Coldfire/Kilimanjaro by South African artist Georgia Papageorge, a work featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Coldfire/Kilimanjaro is a work that is comprised of decades of observation of the Kilimanjaro glacier, which Papageorge has watched as it has steadily receded. According to Papageorge, one of the biggest local factors in the irreversible melting of the glacier is the felling and burning of trees in the regional and illegal charcoal trade. However, there is no doubt in our minds that carbon emissions and climate change is a global problem and that local factors and local impacts, as significant as they may be, are only indicative of the global scale of this seemingly irreversible problem. Image

Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro Souther Glaciers, 2010

Mixed Media, 238cm x 148 cm