Holding Space

Syowia Kyambi

Caption: Mabati Structure, Syowia Kyambi

A man-made structure is not the usual image that comes to my mind when thinking about borderlessness but the above image has become a persistent natural connector after being invited to write on this topic. I built this structure in 2018, and for two years it was my kitchen, office and bedroom. It accommodated between two to six people at any given time. For me, the mabati1 sheets used to build this structure symbolise freedom. It is a fast and affordable method of construction, which allowed me to move, and to create a new living and working space for myself: a new life. I had done the internal work of finding a healthier mental space and as a result, a continuous motivation was embedded within me to evolve from survival mode and enter a state of thriving. This mabati structure was the first visual form that made evident my mental transformation. The space that I currently exist in still reverberates with the freedom that this first structure gave me. The energy still flows to create a holding space; the ground is constantly prepared for regrowth, transformation, introspection and collectivity.

Untethered Magic: Holding Collectivity

Untethered Magic, formed in August 2019 by Kibe Wangunyu, Kiberu Dennis and myself, is a home as well as a sanctuary; a safe space for creatives focusing on supporting the process for research based conceptual contemporary arts. Our oasis is a self-made space which hosts and grows residencies and individual practices for occupants and visitors. It’s a space that encourages growth and independence, learning, unlearning and relearning space, process, life and art. Untethered Magic is a re-imagination of living human relationships, a supportive communal space, whilst also being defiant to the normal societal structure specific to the context of Kenya.

Recently I have been re-considering the curatorial concepts that constitute the collective that is Untethered Magic and thinking on space holding and what kind of invisible labour is involved in this activity. Mainly, how to better protect myself from the exhaustion of both perceived and un-perceived labour, and how to develop strategies and tactics to avoid reaching that point of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. 

I’d like to share my thoughts about relationship dynamics and relating: the effort of existing as the other, and the labour that is involved in being the other. There is always extra effort involved when holding space for moments of being and feeling understood. When people are collaborating, cross engaging and coming from different places of relating, the labour becomes less. When you operate in the we, in the multiple, many methods, ways of being and explaining are expressedthis allows for divergent ways of understanding and being.

Within the constant retrospection that takes place in the labour of holding space for yourself and for others, an analysis on where you are in the here and now, both internally and externally, and where your collaborators are must be outed through the labour of communication.

Communicating these thoughts and sensations, understanding the gaps between the internal, the external, the perceived and the imagined is vital for a collective to survive and thrive. 

Understanding the gaps that exist between each other and allowing the time and space for these gaps to be understood, and potentially but not necessarily, to be bridged. Communicating discomfort allows our collective to forge a deeper understanding of how situations in the past have configured how we respond to the present. In this on-going process, what is perceived and what is explained is constantly shifting, and consolidated effort must be exerted to reconcile what is understood and what is perceived to be understood. This labour has to be continual when working collaboratively because when you live and work in the same space with a group of people (who have consciously chosen each other) the public and private are intermeshed and revealed. It is always personal. These are the moments I find borderless. 

I question whether one should transfer this personal, this private into the formal. Into the space of the institution, the space of the official, because we are human and we carry our luggage with us. Within the labour of working collectively, there are moments in which we experience points of vulnerability. These moments present an opportunity to explore a deeper trust, a deeper relationship with yourself and with others you coexist with.

Thoughts on Respite

I often feel calm when I’m working with ceramics, particularly when I’m using the traditional African coil method. The vessel is formed and there is something soothing about this circular shape, the cool temperature and the moment of binding the material together. With these long coils that are separate, and then get manipulated and formed to become one. Becoming a container, becoming something that can be held, that can be seen, something that doesn’t stretch into the length but creates a circular form. It’s a place where I feel held in that moment of making. It’s a meditative moment that supports the labour of holding space. Like the ceramic vessel my body inhabits space and time, navigating the in-between spaces encompassed by the mabati structures at Untethered Magic.

I am embracing the borderlessness of space holding.☼


 1Mabati – corrugated iron sheeting, normally used for temporary housing