From Intern to Field Worker, Part 3: Building an Art Installation for MSF
By Vivian Peng
MSF has been working in Kibera, Kenya, since 1997, originally to provide care for people living with HIV, and later to provide TB treatment, vaccinations, primary health care, nutrition programs, maternal child health, non-communicable diseases, and sexual and gender-based violence counseling. After 20 years of working in Kibera, MSF handed over our clinic to the Nairobi City County Health Services in June 2017.
I recently finished a mission in Kenya as a field communications manager, documenting the history and transformation of MSF’s work in Kibera. This is my behind-the-scenes account of the process of building an art installation with the Kibera community.
I asked my team to trust the creative process. And I’m forever grateful for their endless patience because the truth is, the process was a bit of a hot mess.
As kids, we’re taught that being creative means to think outside the box, to dream beyond boundaries and reality. This comes naturally to us when we’re young, but the older we get, the more real-life limitations weigh down our imagination. What’s the point of dreaming up the most spectacular creation when it can’t be brought to life?
That’s why as adults we learn that being creative means to think inside the box, to work within our limitations.
This was a lesson I learned over and over again while working on an art installation to commemorate the 20 years of MSF in Kibera. From the start, we were faced with many limitations. I had a plan A, which turned into a plan B, then a plan C, D, E, and so on. First, it was to be a beaded sculpture of a mother and child, but it was hard to find an outdoor location that would allow it to be seen by everyone. Then it was to be 200 cement tiles painted with “invisible paint” (more on this later) spread all throughout Kibera, but space in Kibera was limited. Then it was to be a mural, but this was only a backup plan while we waited for the ‘perfect’ idea to come.
I asked my team to trust the creative process. And I’m forever grateful for their endless patience because the truth is, the process was a bit of a hot mess. We interviewed individuals, connected with local artists, and conducted a community workshop. But every time we moved forward on a concept, I hesitated and pulled the idea. It’s hard to explain, but the ideas just didn’t feel right.
I wanted to somehow show that even when MSF leaves, the spirit of prioritizing health and empowering patients continues through the lived experiences of those we’ve met along the way.
One day, I asked if we could walk around Kibera instead of driving. I had such a short amount of time to get to know this community, and thought it was impossible to do so through the window of a car.
My colleague Siama, a health promoter and former patient, took me all around Kibera, weaving our way through the tight alleyways. We spent the whole day walking, and it was the first time I felt like I really experienced Kibera.
Everywhere we went, people wanted to stop and talk to Siama. She’s been working with MSF for 15 years and people wanted to know how she was doing and catch up on their lives. Through these dynamics, I witnessed the transformation of individuals. People who Siama had met years ago on their deathbeds were now walking around with their families. I could feel their sadness about MSF leaving, but could also see their determination to take care of each other.
There was something special in these interactions that I wanted to capture in the installation. I wanted to somehow show that even when MSF leaves, the spirit of prioritizing health and empowering patients continues through the lived experiences of those we’ve met along the way.
I looked online and found “invisible paint”–paint that only appears when it rains outside. I thought this balance between what’s seen and unseen perfectly captured this dynamic. Though our physical presence may be gone, the foundation that we’ve built together remains.
But the challenge is that this paint only works on cement and there aren’t many cement surfaces in Kibera. I was sitting at an art studio discussing this challenge with the artists there, when one of them suggested we build a cement structure for us to paint on. Right then, I peered outside and noticed around 15 men sitting under a stage to find relief from the sun. The stage is permanently located in an open field outside and is used as a gathering area for special events. But I often found people sitting in the scaffolding under the stage because it’s one of the few places you can sit in Kibera out of the heat of the sun. I thought, what if we built tall cement benches so the community can use and interact with our artwork?
The creative process may be messy and uncertain, but with a good team, trust, and a lot of grit, the outcome never disappoints.
I had no idea what it takes to create cement benches, but Siama and the artists were 100% confident. So, I made a dinky little pencil sketch of what I wanted the benches to look like, and brought it to a contractor:
From there, it felt like magic. He immediately got the idea. We updated the sketch:
Then created a clay model:
And after weeks of arduous meetings and talks with officials and community members for approval to construct the benches, we finally had the green light to begin construction.
Once the benches were completed, we waited two weeks for the cement to dry:
Just as we were ready to paint in mid-August, we decided to postpone due to the post-election unrest. Our MSF teams (including Siama) were busy providing emergency care for those affected in Kibera, Mathare, Dandora, Soweto, and Kisumu. At this point, I was already at the end of my mission and could not extend any longer. I left Kenya with a heavy heart, concerned for the safety of my friends in Kibera, and bummed that I wouldn’t be there to see the final creation.
But by this time, I had developed endless patience and, boy, was it worth the wait. The talented artists brought the vision to life. Here you see the final creation, our “Tuko Poa” benches:
The benches take the form of two human silhouettes, capturing the spirit of community strength that lives through Kibera. The MSF logo is painted in invisible paint so it only appears when it rains outside.
The creative process may be messy and uncertain, but with a good team, trust, and a lot of grit, the outcome never disappoints. There were several moments in this journey when I thought that we wouldn’t be able to execute the vision, and I was prepared to terminate the project. Yet, with each limitation came a turning point that somehow made the artwork better than anything I could’ve dreamt up on my own.