Ep.34 Past Meets Present | Kenneth Kanaabi


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Kenneth Kanaabi [EP 34]

[00:00:26] Kenneth Kanaabi: My name is Kenneth Kanaabi. I'm a graduate architect, designer. I'm very passionate about design. I was born first and raised in a humble, artistic family. My father is a multi-displinary artisan, and my mom is a beautician. So that's the background where I grew up from. I was raised in a small suburb around Kampala. That is Nansana, in Uganda.

[00:00:49] And I was raised through an intersection of Baganda and Kinyarwanda cultures whereby my, my dad is Muganda and my mom is Nyarwanda. So, I shared both cultures while growing up and it has affected my perception and my way of designing things and looking at design. Yes.

[00:01:10] So, what's unique about Buganda culture?

[00:01:13] As I was growing up I realized that, for Baganda and the Rwandese culture, they're all African cultures and some similarities around them. But when you look at the uniqueness of the Buganda culture itself, uh, you see that for them, they have unique architecture. All their design elements that they use in their everyday life have function.

[00:01:35] For example, if it's a broom, I remember in my grandmother's village, you could see that it's a broom. But there's... there's a way it is artistically, you know, put together, you know, and if it's a match, yes, it's a simple match from simple natural materials, but still you find that they go an extra mile to try to play with different simple motifs to, to see that it looks very nice in the sitting room.

[00:01:57] So from that background, I started getting passionate about design. My dad is a multi-disciplinary artisan that means we made things together. I remember very well in my childhood we used to make very many things from simple, simple toys that used to make for me.

[00:02:12] I used to play with that at home because my friends used to have plastic toys gotten from the supermarket. But for me, my dad used to make for me these ugly wooden cars and I couldn't compete very well with my friend because mine was always slow, slow. But the others were very, very fast because they could pull that lever and could, you know, move very fast.

[00:02:33] I used to lose in competitions with my friends, but I later appreciated that. Yes. These stories were very rough. It was simple wood with wooden pieces cut, you know, in circular form and with just nails to move. So, that's really inspired me to start creating things. And I used to help my dad in making things like tables at home, he used to make us beds. I remember, uh, the set of furniture where I used to do my homework, we did it together at home. So, that's the background I'm coming from. And that I used to now look at my mother playing. I don't wanna say playing but used to, you know, weave people's hair. So you could see that the underlying aspect was trying to make people happy, creating new things for people and trying to make them feel good. That is my mother, and then that is my father. I think I am in the intersection of the two.

[00:03:24] Adrian: Mm-hmm. . Wow, that's really brilliant. And it's great that you've come to appreciate those toys that your dad used to make because now hopefully, we are starting to appreciate those things that last and toys like that can perhaps go across generations as well. So, it's always a nice shared experience.

[00:03:46] And so your dad was a professional maker, an artisan, and he did that as well for a living.

[00:03:55] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. I still doing that for a living.

[00:03:58] Adrian: That's really cool. Really cool.

[00:04:01] Kenneth Kanaabi: So, I used to make things at home like, you know, on during the weekends you could make something in his workshop. So, I got introduced to sketching, making things, prototypes at an early age.

[00:04:12] The school I went to, I think he also had to strategically place me in a school where it has hands-on things whereby we could have some vocational subjects where we used to make things. So, I found myself in an environment, learning, woodwork, learning of course arts, learning technical drawing, learning, metalwork.

[00:04:31] So, I got to learn this at an age when I was in my high school. And that now introduced me to the understanding more of design. That's how I've been growing. We made different projects, you know, at school. Making simple, simple projects like making trains, making simple products like dust stars for our classes.

[00:04:50] In metalwork we used to do different projects still, like that's when I got into understanding materials professionally and understanding the theory behind these materials that I have at home in my dad's workshop. It's from there now, I started growing this passion of making things.

[00:05:06] And I remember asking my dad what's the profession or the career for someone who makes things, you know? And he told me that someone like that is called a planner. He told me that he's the one that plans things and they're made. So, I grew up talking to myself that I want to be a planner, but later I go to learn that there is an, a phenomenal called architecture. I got to learn it when I was in my secondary school and I started growing towards that. During working towards that and, and being an architect, that's what pushed me to architecture school to understand design and understand how things are made, to understand where do ideas come from.

[00:05:42] And that's where I got to gain some confidence to make a few things on my own, confidently. And defend them following different design principles that I got to learn from my professors at school.

[00:05:54] Adrian: Great and awesome. I'd I, I'd love to know about some of the architectural stuff that you've created as well. I know there's Misimu and maybe you can tell us about some of the projects you've worked on Architecturally.

[00:06:10] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes, of course I am still a young architect under mentorship right now, so I don't have individual projects, but through competitions that happen internationally, I happen to reach out for those opportunities and try to share my ideas with different people.

[00:06:27] So, in 2020 there was an international competition advertised by Architecture Association of Kenya, and I gained interests. I participated in it, and we found ourselves with my friend, James Musasizi. We won the second prize. Basically, the competition was to look for ideas that could mitigate or that could be resilient in floods.

[00:06:49] Remember, in 2020 floods affected Kenya greatly. I think the reports came out very many people died because of the floods that came from rising waters, of Lake Victoria. So, I happened to design an idea or an integration that specifically for Budalangi site. That's around Lake Victoria basin.

[00:07:09] And we got to design an instrument that could be resilient against floods. And through that we got to appreciate all these ideas. Of course, we explain it with local materials, local technology. And Misimu for us, was a concept that we interpreted like seasons. We interpreted that seasons of floods come and in this site of seasons of floods come and in the same site floods go away.

[00:07:37] We're excited to see that during time of floods, people who have strength tend to help one another to see that they save themselves from this flood. That's why we got an idea of using a floating table, a floating raft that would float when floods come. The house safely sits down.

[00:07:53] So, that was the concept that we presented, and we are grateful that we managed to win that prize. Of course, other channels where I've managed to practice some architecture is through architecture studios, under mentorship, under ProPlan Partners right now. And ProPlan Partners is principled by architect David Mugamba.

[00:08:11] He's one of the oldest farms in Uganda today and I've managed to experiment a few ideas under his mentorship and I'm still learning a lot from him. I believe I'll be a great architect maybe in the future.

[00:08:25] Adrian: Brilliant. Yeah. And also a product designer, right? So, I've seen you talk about designing with earthly materials in Uganda and around the world, and what are some of the products that you've been innovating around culture and earthly materials?

[00:08:44] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. Thank you for that. Now, what's fascinating about design, I always wanted to follow kind of the phenomenon of African design. African design is characterized by color, bold colors, geometrical shapes, symbolic motiffs use of natural materials, repetition and simplicity, cultural significancy and functionality.

[00:09:05] Those are some of the basis guidelines that I try to use or follow when I'm designing things. In some of the products that I've managed to do that is, uh, the Kitole table. You could see that I used natural materials like papyrus. Today in Uganda you find that we are blessed with this plant but it has not yet been experimented into furniture design.

[00:09:27] So, I had to take that initiative to experiment with this material into furniture design and see what comes out. And the entire concept of Kitole came out. I've also tried to experiment with this paper to the scale of architecture. That is through the project we did in Kaberamaido, where we did an installation that housed an exhibition that ran for one week in Kaberamaido in North west part of Uganda.

[00:09:53] I'm so grateful about that and someone may ask why do we use bold materials as Africans? This is my thinking that African design is characterized by, of course, use of bold colors and also natural materials because we believe, just like when you look at our ancestors way back, they tried to recreate the water around them by trying to use the already existing materials, which were already cheap and available and converting into something that they used to feel, you know very nice and very good for them. And more so color. Color, it is something that is fascinating in this content of Africa whereby we use it to express emotions. We use color to represent energy and vitality of the continent and its people.

[00:10:34] We also use bright colors because of our landscapes. You know, when you go to the Savannah, you could see the beautiful sun, the reds in the beautiful sunset. You know, you could see the yellows in the, the same beautiful sunset. And then when you got the rainforest, you could pick out the blue skies, the greens.

[00:10:53] All this is African to me. This is what defines African design more so the traditional beliefs and spiritual beliefs also. It is something that when you go back to the history, you could find that there are different spiritual motifs or shapes that are picked up like circles, diamonds, triangles. For example, when you look at the triangle, it was greatly used in the Egypt. And also when you look at the papyrus, when you cut it like this, the cross-section, you get to find a triangular form that inspired Egyptian civilization. When you go into history, you'll see that for them, the interpreted it as a holy plant because it represents the Trinity to them.

[00:11:33] And also some of the color pigments in African design are already available in natural materials. Like for example, blood, you know. Red is perceived as a color of life, whereas black is perceived as a color of mystery and color of unknown.

[00:11:49] So, you find that colors played an important role way back in African design. And I believe that even up to date, these are some of the elements that we could thrive on as designers that are designing in the postmodern era.

[00:12:02] Adrian: Really cool. What was it like then working with the papyrus in practice? What was the experience like? What's the material like to work with? What was it good for? What was it difficult and challenging with?

[00:12:16] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. Now papyrus, it's an interesting plant. It grows widely, along the river Nile basin. That's where it is. And way back we used to use it to make baskets, boats because this plant when it's dry, it's very light.

[00:12:31] The Egyptians themselves made paper, a papyrus paper from this plant and they managed to scribe interesting ancient knowledge. I think it's an interesting material that we have as a gift on the Nile that we can also use.

[00:12:46] When I was using this material, I realized that we have it in plenty. We have it in abundance along the River Nile Basin to an extent. It gets dry and it catches fire by itself, you know. So while working with it, I realized that locally, the local craftsmen in Uganda today of course use it to do the same things.

[00:13:04] They use it to make mats, they use it to make baskets and I wanted to push it to furniture design, and I realized that it is something that is sustainable. Papyrus can be planted, and it grows very, very fast. I found it very, very, very readily available, locally cheap because when you got the market and buy papyrus mats, they're very, very cheap.

[00:13:25] But when you work with them very well, you get amazing things. You get amazing eco things that could compete on an international markets. Of course now people are knowledgeable on how to use this material, so you find that the craftsmen know how to play with it very well. So, if you give them an idea and you direct them very well, you can get very many interesting things out of it.

[00:13:46] And some of the examples that I managed to experiment with that is furniture, ceiling panels, because it has good ceiling acoustic properties. Papyrus itself, since it has that warm color, you can just put it as a feature wall in the interior. Of course, keeping it from the rain. I think it's an interesting material that we have not yet fully utilized on the continent, especially for us who are really blessed with it.

[00:14:10] Adrian: Great. Yeah, it looks like an exciting material. Looking forward to seeing what things you might come up with with it and how others will explore, keep exploring it as it's good for us to take those traditionally used materials. Like you said, those maps are already being made, but what else can we make with those materials that's going to prove valuable?

[00:14:33] You've spoken of being greatly inspired by hidden small moments. Perhaps that's a crossover of your architectural and product design interests. Maybe you can tell me about what that means to you.

[00:14:46] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. I believe that interesting ideas are everywhere, you know, but what is interesting for me as a designer is to look for those interesting moments in our everyday life and try to convert them into something that can make people happy. I'm greatly inspired by, uh, Japanese designer called Nendo.

[00:15:03] I tried to borrow his philosophy and tried to forge mine, you see? And I realized that, there are interesting moments around us that we do not consciously see, but they tend to make our lives richer, make our lives more interesting. Like for example, when you look at that table that I designed called Kitole, it's an interesting moment.

[00:15:25] Phenomenon that I captured was togetherness. We enjoy being together, you know, but now in Covid when we were divided, you know, when we were hindered from meeting physically, you find that we felt so bad about that. And I realize that such a phenomenon, such a moment of togetherness can be converted into an interesting product like Kitole table or the seat that you've seen.

[00:15:49] And there are very many moments that we can convert into interesting products very many moments that we can see. There are very many moments here in Kampala. There are very many moments even around us right now that can be consciously captured and try to conceptualize them into a product that can solve a certain problem.

[00:16:08] Adrian: What are some of those moments that you've come across, either in Kampala, Uganda, or during your travels as interesting examples of cultural moments?

[00:16:19] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. I don't know how many doors you've opened today when you came to record this podcast, but I believe there are very many doors that you've opened from the time you woke up. But that small moment of opening doors. We do it every day and we consciously forget about it. I can pick that moment and I try to conceptualize it to design something around it.

[00:16:38] It can be a piece of furniture, it can be a chair, it can be an an entire building. When I try to break down the sketches and I show you how this simple moment of opening doors on a daily basis can be converted to something that is really interesting. Something that can solve a problem, can make a world a better place.

[00:16:55] So that's kind of my philosophy of, uh, looking at things and looking at design. I believe design, it is something that makes people happy. I believe also that the future is ancient, like way back. This is my thinking. I don't know, this is my thinking that the future is ancient. All the things that we are discovering right now, I believe that they're already existing, like they're already there way before.

[00:17:20] The different design movements or art movements that we've studied in the past. We look at art history, you know, the Egyptians, the Roman, the Greeks, all different movements of art or design. They're coming back in one word or the other, you know? And, look at the way we are singing sustainability right now. It is a concept that is ancient.

[00:17:41] It has been here, you know, the concept of sustainability. Net zero. It's a concept that was way back. The concept of grounding, you know, walking, using barefoot. It's something that our ancestors used appreciate. Like right now we are sharing, using the internet. I believe there was a way our ancestors used to telecommunicate with one another using their own technology. And we just need to s trive to create it based on what is already existing around us.

[00:18:11] Adrian: Yeah, that's really fascinating in terms of what we can, what we can learn. Are there any particular projects that you've worked on or that you are working on perhaps that you'd also like to share?

[00:18:28] Kenneth Kanaabi: Yes. Right now of course, we are looking towards the Nairobi Design Week. I'm looking forward to showcase some of my new works that I've been working on and trying to come up with a concept called Embutu. Embutu is a drum or called Engoma in Kiswahili.

[00:18:45] I'm trying to capture moments around the drum, converting them into different things that can solve our everyday problems like furniture, lighting, even architecture itself if the scale is multiplied. So, I'm working on that project. I'm trying to create different things around Embutu, the drum, because the drum is very instrumental in Africa and we've been using it as a tool of communication. A tool we use in worship, a tool that cuts across all tribes.

[00:19:14] So, I think it's an interesting moment and it'll be an interesting project to showcase at Nairobi Design Week.

[00:19:22] Adrian: Awesome. Very excited for that. And of you taking that traditional form and exploring it in different scales. What about beyond that? What are your aspirations for the future of your work and where it's going?

[00:19:37] Kenneth Kanaabi: Of course I aspire to speak for the African design or to produce more products using natural materials or using different African design principles. And also I'm looking forward to use design as a tool to unite all the tribes in Africa.

[00:19:52] When you go down to South Africa, you'll find that the way, the approach to design and the way of understanding their everyday life, it's the same to the people in Central Africa, to the people in East Africa and West Africa. For example, I can give you a small integration or a small element like a simple art. The architecture, you know, way back before there was no internet, but you could find east to the west to the south.

[00:20:18] They knew that they should design something circular. There were no architects, there was no internet, there was no, this massive exchange of ideas. But you find that it was intuitively done by different artisans then, and you could find that the circular form played an important role in the architecture itself because I believe maybe they looked at things around them, like maybe the sun, the cross section of the tree.

[00:20:42] That's where the circular form was very visible when they looked at the Moon, you know, when they looked at themselves, maybe it was more dominant to them and that's how they managed to interpret it into their everyday life. So, I believe that we can unite all the tribes in Africa, maybe into an interesting festival.

[00:21:04] Maybe one day, Nairobi Design Festival will unite all the tribes and we showcase all these interesting, objects that they use or they celebrate in their lives.

[00:21:14] Adrian: Yeah, for sure. It's interesting how when we remove ourselves from nature, from the surroundings that hundreds or thousands of generations have gone through, put ourselves next to technology the whole time, we almost forget, we lose some of that knowledge that we've had for so many generations.

[00:21:35] So, we need to go to it and not forget it and keep implementing it into the, things we create now.

[00:21:43] By the way, has your name got a meaning or a reason behind it?

[00:21:49] Kenneth Kanaabi: The name, I got it from one of my great, great, great, great grandfather. So, I tried to look for the meaning from my elders, and they told me that the meaning, it's not well stated, but it's a name that one of the great, great, great, great grandfathers used to have. So I in particular, it doesn't have any connected meaning to it.

[00:22:15] Adrian: Yeah. We, we always find that African names have interesting stories behind them a lot of the time.

[00:22:22] Kenneth Kanaabi: yes,

[00:22:23] Adrian: So, where can people find you? Where should people get in touch with you? What should they get in touch about and where, can they find you?

[00:22:32] Kenneth Kanaabi: People can find my work on Instagram. I use Instagram to showcase most of what I've done. The handle is Kenkan256. You can check it out and see some of the things that I've managed to do. People can find my work in Bugoloobi Automotive. We normally have different exhibitions happening at automotive. Possibly in the future I'm hoping to build an online portfolio where people could easily see my work and interact with me more effectively.

[00:23:02] Adrian: Thank you so much, Kenneth. It's been a real pleasure having you on and it's, it was great to meet you as well in person.

[00:23:09] Kenneth Kanaabi: Thank you so much Adrian.

In a world driven by technological advancements and modern trends, there is a growing appreciation for incorporating ancient or historical knowledge into contemporary design practices.

In this week’s Afrika Design Podcast we engage in conversation with Kenneth Kanaabi, a graduate architect and designer from Uganda, embodies this ethos in his work. Drawing inspiration from his rich heritage and upbringing, Kanaabi has embraced traditional elements and earthly materials to create innovative designs that resonate with people on a profound level.

Growing up in a cross-cultural environment, Kanaabi was exposed to both Buganda and Kinyarwanda cultures. He recognized the unique architectural aspects and design elements within the Buganda culture, where functionality and artistic expression intertwine seamlessly. Everyday objects such as brooms and matches were adorned with intricate motifs, showcasing the attention to detail and the desire to create beauty in the simplest of things. This exposure ignited Kanaabi's passion for design and set him on a path to explore his creative potential.

In this episode we discusses his creative process, which began with his father making many of the items the young boy wanted. From an early age, he had practical experience in product design and prototyping. He describes the characteristics of Afrikan design, some of the materials utilized in its production, and the ideas that went into it.

This is the fourth episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.

'Illustrations of Existence': A site-specific exhibition located in the Kaberamaido district, by visual artist wamala.art Wamala Joseph Kyeyune and Kenneth Kanaabi.

KITOLE by Kenneth Kanaabi and James_Musasizi, an exploration of the potential of papyrus as a natural material in the field of furniture design

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design

Host: Adrian Jankowiak

Producer, Shorts & Artwork: David King'ori

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)