Caroline Wanjiku Kihato
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For Sociologist Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, the beginning of this journey was the end of another. In 2013, her book, Migrant Women of Johannesburg, finally passed from her hands into the world. It was a difficult but rewarding process drawing on all her years of experience working with migrants in and around South Africa. In many ways, it was the culmination of a life’s work. From her childhood in Nairobi, living a twenty-minute walk from one of the largest slums in Africa to a storied career in the research and policy space, Kihato has dedicated herself to telling untold stories, excavating and shining a light on the most marginalised of voices.
One of the people who were there throughout, as copy editor and friend, was Clare Loveday. As they said goodbye to the book, she and Clare lamented the end of their collaboration and talked about the possibility of future collaborations. They held onto this intention for many years, waiting for the perfect opportunity.
It wouldn’t be until 2020, just before the pandemic, that anything came of it. When Loveday came back with an idea for a speaking pianist piece, inspired by her own conversations with Mareli Stolp, Kihato was thrilled and curious about the possibilities. How could such a piece hold everything it needed to? What harmony was there to be found between the words of her interlocutors and Loveday’s music? The concept was difficult to envision and harder to manifest.
The negotiations lasted months. After their first in-person meeting at Loveday’s studio, Kihato was given the task of selecting which stories from her book would work best in the project. The goal was to select testimonies that might reflect the diversity of experiences migrant women in Africa have—capturing all the foreboding and excitement, the hope and fear. The three of them set out in pursuit of a three-dimensional, living depiction of these women
It wasn’t until opening night that Kihato heard the piece in its entirety and, although she’d been there and spoken to those women, hearing their stories again so differently interpreted and delivered, it was as if she was encountering them anew. Kihato talks about the way the performance “transposed the words from her head to her heart.” And this, ultimately, was a sign of success. Through the mingling of their respective skills, they’d created an affective soundscape that reframed the testimonies and afforded them new salience.
This is at the core of Kihato’s work and emerges also in the second component of the exhibit, Awo Tsegah’s fabric panels. The panels unsettle any straightforward assumptions Kihato gleaned from the data and instead embed them thoroughly in an intimate, domestic, and historically rich medium. The goal here too is to reimagine abstract data in a way that is legible to lay folks, to give the audience something more concrete to hold onto.
In Venice, the data and performance will find a new audience. Kihato looks forward to this encounter with excitement and trepidation—conscious of the complexity of a conversation across cultural, linguistic, geographic differences.