Vanessa Kanaiza Onalo tells Chidozie Obasi about her digital exhibition No Shoes On My Carpet, in which 20 Black artists take us inside their homes
In challenging times, art can provide comfort; it can leave you feeling somehow consoled. Nairobi-raised, London-based curator Vanessa Kanaiza Onalo is doing exactly that with her new project, No Shoes On My Carpet, a poignant new digital exhibition at her eponymous gallery Kanaiza which celebrates Black living room culture through the work of 20 artists. “The experience features artists who transport us into their homes all over the world,” she explains. “And the rare opportunity for art lovers to personally discover and connect with artists from across the globe from the comfort of their own living rooms.”
It makes for a wistful narrative: a literal trip down memory lane, the exhibition taking its name from an expression used by her grandmother growing up in Nairobi. Onalo reflects on how much art, despite the world’s current viciousness, can run in tandem with human emotion and memory. “The last few months have been collectively challenging, but art continues to play its part in documenting history and emotions,” she says. “Amid all the chaos it has been inspiring to connect artists to art lovers from all parts of the world.”
Coming to terms with an unsettling racial crisis is no easy feat. However, having grown up immersed in art and culture, the feel-good factor of the exhibition – and the intimate work of the artists involved – feels infectious. Speaking on her journey as a Black woman, Onalo says: “My response is to curate and share art that moves me and wholly represents varied Black experiences.” The exhibition itself, which runs until a final deaf-friendly screening on August 15, sees brooding visuals flick between 20 Black artists and their homes, eight short films and 14 visual stories, championing the value of community and Black representation, as well as the importance of melding art, culture and storytelling.
A rising advocate and leader of her own right, Vanessa Kanaiza Onalo spoke to AnOther about the consuming project, in her own words.
“‘No shoes on my carpet’ – my grandmother said this to me every time I rushed into her living room after playing out in Nairobi; the phrase is now embedded in my mind. To my older self, it is a mark of respect when entering someone’s home. No Shoes On My Carpet is an intimate and nostalgic art experience celebrating Black living room narratives, born out of home truths and memories; explored through art. The experience features artists who transport us into their homes all over the world. And the rare opportunity for art lovers to personally discover and connect with artists from across the globe from the comfort of their own living rooms.
“A physical, immersive version of the No Shoes On My Carpet experience was planned for March before the world as we knew it paused to fight off the pandemic and ongoing inequality for Black communities. The last few months have been collectively challenging, but art continues to play its part in documenting history and emotions. Amid all the chaos it has been inspiring to connect artists to art lovers from all parts of the world. We are constantly learning from each other as a community and it is beautiful to see how each artist interpreted the curator’s brief. Brazilian photographer and journalist Fabio Setti’s short film Afeto (affection) reflects on indoor and outdoor expressions of Black love. Kenyan filmmaker and photographer Rogers Ouma chose to honour his mother, his younger teenage self and the space they shared. Having adapted the experience from physical to online and now to a deaf-friendly experience, artists involved in the project have overcome physical limitations and found new ways to share their art.
“Born and raised in busy but friendly city of Nairobi and now also an east London native, I draw heavily from my experiences as a member of two very different worlds and societies with their own set of rules and subcultures. I see the world through an alternative lens and speak a third language that is understood between local and international communities. The concept of minority only became a reality in my life once I was in the UK. I did not have to look very far to see positive, realistic and artistic representations of myself as a young girl in Kenya. As an adult living in the UK I understand this was a privilege not enjoyed by all Black communities in the western world. My response is to curate and share art that moves me and wholly represents varied Black experiences.
“Black artists have a spectrum of experiences that represent the communities they come from. Their narratives are often diluted, silenced or limited to stereotypes. Home to a global community of 50,000-plus artists and art lovers alike dedicated to Black creative visionaries and artists across the world, Kanaiza is a digital gallery and art storytelling agency that merges the worlds of art, culture, community and storytelling. Kanaiza exists to champion artists and the communities they represent so they are seen, celebrated and invested in.”