Space Stations and Cloud Nine – Artists and innovators support sustainable change

Kairos Futura is a Nairobi-based arts futurist organization, and they feel that in addressing the future, we need to address the environment. Their initiatives serve as hubs for artists, designers, futurists, and community organizers who share a common passion for using the arts as a means to effect change.

Led by director Ajax Axe, Kairos Futura has instigated a number of ecology-focused art happenings over the last few years, including dystopian leaning projects where artists, scientists and designers have considered survival techniques for the human race in a world affected by climate change. 

They have created “Space Stations” in Aspen (USA), Lamu and Nairobi – projects “to research, prototype and implement local future fantasies”. These Stations are clearly focused on earthlings, and reject the dream of Space as the future. Emphasizing that the future is now, here on earth, their moniker is an ironic comment on billionaires such as Elon Musk aiming  to create settlements on the Moon or Mars at a time when we need to be focusing on environmental solutions to heal the Earth.

”The presumption that we can deplete all of the resources on Earth and escape to another planet is delusional at best and extremely dangerous” – Ajax Axe

I saw their interactive and immersive  installation in Lamu in 2022. Set among the sands and sun of idyllic feeling Shela village, the installation  provoked curiosity and playfulness among the viewers, including lots of local children. 

However, the project was considering heavy themes. There were pods, helmets and backpacks woven by local artisans from local raffia. Beautiful but somehow reminiscent of traps. Along with the cotton jumpsuits, these local materials were somehow disconcerting, styled as space suits – a combination of desert island and Lost in Space, implying that Space is not the answer… but could we survive on a future earth? 

Collaboration is at the core of Kairos Futura’s ethos. It is important to the organzition to involve both artists and local communities. Nairobi Space Station was created with Brush Tu artists’ collective and community-based organization Wajukuu Arts, a diverse group of artists and creators. Their aim is to inspire new ways of thinking about Nairobi’s future. 

Nairobi Space Station has been focused on ecological issues and rewilding the Kenyan capital’s inner city spaces. In Mukuru, Nairobi Space Station and Wajukuu Arts worked together to construct a mini-wetland that filters out pollution from the Ngong River. Led by multi-media artist Abdul Rop and scientist Willy Ng’ang’a, Director of Environmental programs at Kairos Futura, this initiative provides clean water for plants and trees while simultaneously creating a sculptural installation.

The artistic aspect is important to Kairos Futura. The Nairobi Space Station initiative underscores the power of art in driving social change and shaping the future of  cities. Collaborating with Stoneface Bombaa, community organizer at the Mathare Social Justice Centre, Nairobi Space Station turned to planting trees in Mathare. Bombaa designed futuristic helmets with trees attached to the top, which turned a group of artists and volunteers into a “nomadic forest”. Their procession to the planting site became a performance art piece and spoke to the performative acts of politicians planting only a single tree in areas where there might be only 20 trees within a community of 250,000 people. Aided by Seedballs Kenya, the group has planted over 1000 trees so far. 

What is remarkable about Kairos Futura, is that while they are focusing on potentially distressing environmental issues, they are at the same time enlightening, educating and advocating for critical thought around those issues in a very visually impactful way. Asking viewers and participants to envision a more sustainable future.

The dystopian aspects, including the futuristic, space-age suits with a post-apocalyptic feel, jar viewers into realizing that the future is now and nudging them toward the contemplation of a utopia. Or at least, to think about incorporating utopian ideas into our pedestrian lives. 

In Mukuru, “Metamorphosis”, a large scale installation by artist and Kairos Futura team member Husna Ismail, presents a monster emerging from the pollution of the near-black waters of the Ngong River. The monster also serves as a playground for the children of Mukuru, promoting within the children an appreciation for both arts and environmental issues. Wanjira Kinyua’s “Wrath of the Forest Spirit” similarly serves as a reminder of the long term effects of eco-system destruction. 

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In another project, “Nomadic Futures” nine of the Kairos Futura artists have developed wearable designs and art pieces for a potentially, necessarily nomadic future in East Africa.  Stoneface Bombaa envisioned a a ceremonial water vessel for trees carried by nomadic peoples, a water backpack. Made from a traditional gourd or calabash commonly used in local ceremonies, the portable water pack symbolizes the deep reverence humans have for their environment in the wake of earlier ecological collapse.

A significant amount of Kairos Futura’s collaboration has been with children, as in Lamu where they worked with Kids Create Lamu and Anidan Children’s Home on a speculative fiction arts initiative. 

Later in June they will officially launch Safari Cloud Nine, a unique forest bathing, ecology, and arts program for children of disenfranchised communities. The program combines art and science through rituals, storytelling, and worldbuilding, providing children with the tools they need to understand and appreciate their environment. Despite a formal launch,  a significant impact has already been made in Mathare, Nairobi’s second-largest informal settlement. Over 20 children have participated in 2240 hours of arts and nature-based learning already. Willie Ng’ang’a says

 “Safari Cloud Nine is more than just an educational program; it’s a transformative experience that empowers children to become creative problem solvers and critical thinkers.”

Which is exactly what we need if we want to follow Kairos Futura’s manifest to re-envision life on Earth, rather than expending all of our resources while dreaming of life on Mars.