Stretching from Senegal to Nigeria, the West African coast was once the locus of the transatlantic slave trade. What is less known, however, is the history of enslavement on the continent’s eastern edge. At Kenya’s southernmost point are the Shimoni Caves, a network of subterranean tunnels where slaves were held before being shipped to Portugal and the Middle East. These prehistoric spaces also form a system with the Kisima and Suswa caves, which historically functioned as places of safety and refuge in what is now Kwale County.
“Depending on which side of the tunnel you are travelling toward,” says architect Stella Mutegi of Nairobi’s Cave_bureau, “you either found safety or you found great danger.” Mutegi, together with co-director Kabage Karanja, has situated the ongoing project The Anthropocene Museum within this complex network. “Caves as habitable spaces and structures are nature’s manifestation of a museum,” says Karanja. “This is by virtue of the fact that on their walls and within their spaces are moments of cultural and historic importance.” By grappling with the human-wrought damage that defines the new geological epoch, particularly its connection to the exploitation, past and present, of the Global South, Cave_bureau likewise explores the region’s — and the museum typology’s — long history of extraction and colonization. Centring African voices, therefore, is integral to the studio’s museological inquiry, which is equal parts conceptual and tangible. Using advanced scanning software, the architects record the nuances of natural rock formations and translate these contours into drawings, renderings and models. A series of conversations described as “anthropocene curation,” taking place within the physical caves, are in turn challenging the format of an institution that has marginalized non-European voices for centuries, quite literally extracting objects and bodies.
In the firm’s first on-site endeavour, the volcanic Suswa caves became a prime area to host talks focused on nearby geothermal plants, unsustainable harvesting of Kenyan resources and the continued disenfranchisement of the local community. Following a recent presentation as part of The World Around’s second summit, Cave_bureau is bringing this investigation to the Venice Architecture Biennale as the inaugural representative from their home country. “We believe that Africans,” Karanja says, “need to redefine what a museum is.”
Kenya-based architecture studio examines the museum from beyond the western canon.