Representing the creative future

Mokoro: An exhibition of sanctuary, creativity, and sisterhood

Kristin-Lee Moolman, Louise Ford and Sophie Strobele discuss their new exhibition, MOKORO, a multimedia project documenting the work and sisterhood of Kenya’s Warembo Wasanii

To celebrate the creativity of Warembo Wasanii, an art workshop and studio space based in Korogocho in Nairobi, Kenya; Photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman, stylist Louise Ford and curator & founder of ERE Foundation Sophie Strobele grouped together in September 2021 to capture the workshops extraordinary collection of costumes, garments and art pieces held in Paris’ Gallery Mercier et Associes.

Founded by artist Joan Otieno, Warembo Wasanii brings girls and young women together, providing a safe space where its members are empowered through creativity and self-expression. Throughout their creative process, Joan and the girls craft pieces entirely from waste materials sourced from the neighbouring Dandora landfill, repurposing these discarded resources to create something entirely new; bottle caps, Pampers boxes and shredded plastic sheets are skilfully transformed into visually stunning and beautifully crafted pieces.

Mokoro, meaning ‘Mother’ in Sheng unites photographs, films, interviews, sound installations and artworks created by the girls of Warembo Wasanii, making them both subject and creators of the project; offering the viewer a precious insight into their world and power creativity holds in the face of social and financial disparity.

You found out about Joan and Warembo Wasanii whilst working on your previous project: 28 Hats for Lamu back in 2020. How did you come across it? Was it a very organic discovery?

LF: Organic, it was exactly that! I was sitting at a dinner table in Shela, Kenya in Feburary 2020, waiting for Kristin-Lee to arrive to shoot 28 Hats For Lamu. We were a collection of artists and journalists hosted by the competition’s founder. I was sat next to a friend and collaborator of Joan’s, Nyambura of Ubunifu Lamu studio, who told me about Joan and the girls. Full of awe and curiosity I showed Kristin-Lee the next morning, who was equally intrigued by the story. We subsequently set out a path to meet Joan and the girls, hatching a plan which would end up spanning two and a half years.

This was mid-pandemic, so the process was slow and we had to wait for the right moment to travel. The project was finally made possible when we had the good fortune of meeting Sophie at one of her exhibitions in Paris. Sophie loved the spirit of the idea and couldn’t wait to come on board to curate an exhibition. Sophie partnered us up with Emmanuelle Atlan from Farago Projects, also a curator and producer, who generously supported the project and ensured the girl’s and Joan were properly remunerated for their time and work.

“We started the project with a short-term benefit: Assuring that the artists were valued and paid for their time and skills.” – Sophie Strobele

Sophie, How did you come across the project and what made you want to exhibit it at ERE?

SS:  When Louise came to me with Joan’s story, I could feel that she and Kristin had already put a lot of thought into it. Mokoro came from the heart and they had already established a real connection with Joan in Korogocho.

At ERE we look for projects that are impactful and positive, whilst being creatively convincing. And this project just reunited all of that for me; there was creative intent connected to a cause. All we had to do was work out the precise beneficial action behind the project: so we came up with two phases.

We started the project with a short-term benefit: Assuring that the artists were valued and paid for their time and skills. Together with Farago Projects we paid them commission to rent their garments and purchased some of their brilliant art pieces. The long term benefit will hopefully be sharing Joan’s story with our connections in the art and fashion industry, in order to find more interesting collaborations that will help Warembo Wasanii to further grow and develop.

What was it like working with Kristin, Louse, Joan and Warembo Wasanii on both the initial shoot and the curation of the exhibition? 

SS: Together with Farago Projects, we brought together the existing material to curate the exhibition; We wanted it to be a celebration of everyone involved, seen through the unfailing and distinctive eye of Kristin. It was also her daring, challenging, powerful and at the same time mystical, dream-like work. Complemented by Louise’s unique eye;  I had already seen her dedication to the 28 Hats of Lamu project, so I didn’t doubt the potential of this project. But it was the moment I met Joan, who is a powerhouse of inspiration, that I knew 100% why we took on this project in the first place.

Louise’s unique style and eye, who had dedicated so much time and thought to the 28 Hats of Lamu project as well as Mokoro, I couldn’t doubt the potential of this project. And the moment I was able to meet Joan, a powerhouse and pure inspiration, I knew to 100% why we took on this project.

With ERE we never know what the outcome of our projects will be, but we do know our equation: a creative intent, passionate and dedicated artists, who dare to break prejudices and overcome stigmas, and a clear cause. From there we put everything in place to find adequate actions for the chosen cause, to assure that the artistic work has a real impact and benefits something or someone.

In order to present the globality of such projects, like Mokoro, ERE unites with Farago Projects to build an exhibition that will spark necessary conversations, show new perspectives and demonstrate how creativity and engagement inspire changes. Thanks to Farago Projects we are able to invite Joan to see the exhibition and we’re setting up a few meetings for her here in Paris.

Do you have plans to develop the exhibition to include a VR installation? do you see VR and the metaverse becoming a regularly used medium in art and fashion?

SS: For the moment the VR installation for our project is just a plan, it would be a great tool to make the material and story available for everyone all over the world. Personally, I’m less drawn into the metaverse, but the idea of the internet as a decentralised communication tool is beneficial to share inspiring stories with a variety of different communities.

The spirit of collaboration is very present in the project. How involved were Joan and the girls in the process of documenting their work? How did you all interact? 

KLM: I remained glued to my camera non-stop during shoot days, and shot video elements in between stills. Joan and the girls document their work thoroughly in their own capacity and regularly post on Instagram; Joan took some Mokoro behind-the-scenes iPhone shots for the girls, while Sophie and Emmanuelle interviewed the girls.

LF: There was a tangible feeling of empowerment on the set; thanks to Kristin’s energetic directing, everyone’s shared adrenaline and Joan’s motherly bond with the girls.

It was a true team collaboration, Kristin scouted for spots around the studio and elsewhere in Nairobi that would provide the best setting for the images. Albeit some were more spontaneous sightings; a fan-palm tree by the side of the road, a lush overgrown layby or a brightly coloured corrugated iron shop door. Sophie was always on standby with a video camera and dictaphone to capture all the in-between and behind the scenes moments of the shoot, stealing away one or two girls at a time to discuss their inspirations and technique for the garments they’ve made or what brought them to Joan and the studio in the first place.

We also collaborated with hairstylist, Yann Turchi who worked with detailed precision when designing the hair looks, diving into his suitcase for coloured hair extensions and braids he had sourced in preparation for the trip, taking his time to address the outfit in question and to understand how each girl felt about her hair. They were so excited about his work and always insisted on keeping their up-do in place, even after we finished shooting. Kristin and I would choose the garment for each setting depending on the colour, structure and texture of the setting. The girls were always closely escorted by Joan, translating Kristin’s movement directions when necessary and making sure they felt comfortable and confident.

“Creativity, what inspires an idea, could be as simple as a conversation, a few words spoken to a collaborator.” – Kristin-Lee Moolman

How important is this tangible element of active collaboration to the creation of Mokoro? How important is it to your practice and to the fashion industry in general?

KLM: Collaboration is the only way that projects like Mokoro come to life, and it goes so much further than the work we did on set. The body of finished work and the exhibition would not be what it is without the team that worked on it. Creativity, what inspires an idea, could be as simple as a conversation, a few words spoken to a collaborator. Perhaps removing that person affects what work is created afterwards in some way.

Photography is one of the more collaborative mediums, especially in fashion, where many disciplines work together to create the characters photographed. All involved contribute to the final vision so it is a collaboration essentially.

SS: Active collaboration has great importance in this project, Kristin and Louise really integrated Joan’s viewpoints within their work and everything on show in Paris was made with respect to Joan and the girls.

Personally, I feel the strength of this project is because it doesn’t fit into any category or creative process that we are used to seeing in the fashion industry. Just as Joan takes discarded materials, miraculously giving them a new context; we tried to take all the different ingredients and skills to make something new, something that breaks the codes. Even though Kristin and Louise came to us with the idea, they trusted us to add another layer and angle to the project. That’s how we ended up with a collaborative multimedia exhibition, bringing all different disciplines and opinions into one space.

At ERE we always favour a collaborative, horizontal working process, which implies a lot of conversations, reassessments, listening and observing; sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming and emotional. But to me that’s how you make something true and sincere. To me, the most important part of the process was going to Nairobi and plunging into the world of Joan and the girls for a few days, in order to best share their talent and story with our community here in Paris.

“Spending a few days with Joan and the girls really gave us time to get to know them, which all adds to the sense of intimacy in the final images.” – Kristin-Lee Moolman

Joan and her girls’ creativity in transforming discarded objects along with their sisterhood is a central part of the project, how did you go about capturing all of this in still images, and what has it taught you about your own creative practice? What positive message can we all take from Mokoro?

KLM: What really stuck with me, was seeing how mundane objects deconstructed until they became unrecognisable; almost new. What was supposed to be a process of simply re-defining the familiar became something new waiting to be defined, for me this was the cue to start experimenting across all media.

With the shooting process, it was important that it be done in a way that validated the girls’ talent and hard work. We approached Joan with the idea of a paid commission, and she suggested we hire the dresses from the girls as a way of empowering them.

We hit the ground running, location scouting and shooting with Yann on hair and the support of Sophie and Emanuelle. Spending a few days with Joan and the girls really gave us time to get to know them, which all adds to the sense of intimacy in the final images.

The positive message? Women should come together more often, to lift each other up so we can all thrive together.

LF: Joan and the girls have been a huge source of inspiration for my own practice; learning about techniques, resourcefulness; also patience and work ethic. Some of these garments take months for the girls to make but they do not waiver from the task at hand. Since meeting the girls I have been making a lot more pieces myself for my shoots. If I can’t find the perfect embellishment or I need to add some volume to a skirt, for example, I’ll make it or alter it myself with wire, old buttons or deadstock fabric from the Marché Saint Pierre here in Paris. I’m so thankful for the time we spend together and the many things they taught me.

“In art, there shouldn’t be rules or judgement, to me it’s a safe space to try out alternative concepts, social dynamics and ideas. To practice art today is a luxury, but the safe space it provides should be accessible to everyone. ” – Sophie Strobele

The sanctuary of Joan’s workshop provides an empowering experience for the girls. Globally, how important is art education and the safe space it creates for all young people?

SS: In art, there shouldn’t be rules or judgement, to me it’s a safe space to try out alternative concepts, social dynamics and ideas. To practice art today is a luxury, but the safe space it provides should be accessible to everyone. Joan’s example shows how beneficial and possible it is, to be creative anywhere in the world.

In my opinion, art and creating is so beneficial to the mental and physical state of everyone. To be given a tool to express yourself and the confidence that your opinion is valued, will make any situation or condition you’re born into, seem a little more amendable. It gives you the feeling that you can change something.

It was very touching to hear the girls of Warembo Wasanii explain how the studio has taught them to look at their surroundings differently, to see treasures everywhere, rather than ‘trash’. To me, that shows the power of the imagination and how globally, we not only should give more importance to art education and practice but also how we could shift our perspective on disposable materials and ‘trash’. In the current state, we’re in, I feel imagination, innovation and creativity will be immensely important in finding solutions for waste management and overconsumption.

In addition to the exhibition you’re also working with Warembo Wasanii to continue supporting them and developing their skillsets – Why was this such an important part of the project and should this be a standard industry practice when working with independent creatives and artisans?

SS: The industry has developed so much over the past few years and has thankfully become outwardly critical of cultural appropriation and intellectual exploitation.

At the same time, I still believe that the creative industry is a very powerful vessel to bring forward new concepts, break old paradigms and create new role models for younger generations. So it should still be allowed to take inspiration from different cultures, practices and talents, in order to give them the platform they deserve. But a platform itself just isn’t sufficient anymore in my eyes. There needs to be a fair exchange on all sides.

ERE takes on projects which have a long-lasting effect, which allows the project and in this case the relationship between Joan and the girls to grow over time. In my eyes, that’s another practice that should become standard in the industry; to start thinking of projects in the long term, to consider the full circle, what happens with the materials afterwards, why are we producing this? How can it be transformed over time? To not only create projects that have the one-time wow effect, but to allow them to grow over time. It’s as rewarding to see one project take different shapes, rather than ‘consuming’ 10 new things in a short space of time. This stands for the production side as well as the creative areas of the fashion and art industry. That’s why we created ERE, to use creative and visual power to support positive action.

In the case of Mokoro, collaborating with Farago Projects allowed us to commission the girls. Furthermore, we’re working with Farago Projects and the creative team to offer our resources and networks to support Warembo Wasanii in further developing their skill sets.

Mokoro is on display at Gallery Mercier et Associes, 3 Rue Dupont de L’Eure, 75020 Paris | 24 – 25.06 | 11am-7pm