Harlem is unlike any place that I have been in the world. The streets pullulate with an energy that gets me back to the places in Kenya where I was born and raised, where culture comes to you in the places in your body where you feel the beat of a drum. The deep African American and African roots in Harlem combine with a century of metropolitan life in New York City to create a place that is unique in the world, and is one of its treasures.
And so it was with a lot of trepidation that I began my first work in Harlem in 2006. I am in no position to comment with authority on all that Harlem stands for historically, culturally and politically. After much thought I decided to simply go there and walk, as if I was entering any other landscape in the world, and let the place take me where it would.
This second time, now more familiar with the neighborhood, I began to work simply with the word "earth" resonating in the back of my consciousness. This was not the western notion of earth which is something that we consider to be largely tamed by now, something that needs to be protected from us, but rather the Kenyan concept of "nchi" with which I grew up. The word means "land" in Swahili, but instead of referring to western ideas of the scenic or to a retreat from normal life, it refers to the vessel of all that is. The land is the home of the spirits, alive with unseen portent and containing an invisible world as influential and real as the visible one.
To put this into Post-Modern parlance, the western notions of signifier and signified are significantly altered. The land itself is a signifier for another world that is full of meaning outside of the visual. The signified is understood to exist on a spiritual plane, and there is no need for photographs or any other kind of picture to mediate the exchange.
It has been and continues to be my goal to explore this western need for pictures to place us in relationship with our environments. My hope is that these images resonate as having emerged from Harlem, rather than being about it.