Modern Kenyan Identity: Crafting a Nation Through Monuments


  • Lydia W. Muthuma



modern national identity, modernism, post colonial identity, monuments.


To define the identity of a modern African country, within the Eurocentric interpretive framework, imposes creative limits. Therefore, this is an insider’s perspective of Kenyan identity. It begins with a summary of what constitutes modernism as a philosophy that underpins various cultural expressions. While pointing out the danger of assigning expressions of cultural identity to a state as opposed to a nation, the article surveys monuments in Nairobi. And it is with qualified confidence that modernist-looking monuments are considered cultural expressions of Kenya; they are simply symbols that try to gather the peoples into a modern collective – with (un)certain success.

The colonial authority assembled various monuments in an effort to imprint British identity; these are not in the style of modernism, though they were erected when Europe was experiencing the culture of modernism. The epitome is the statue of King George V. Post-colonial monuments, seeking to wipe off colonial identity, are also more classical and less modernist, bringing to the fore the paradox of a modern culture that does not employ the modernist style. Jomo Kenyatta’s statue in Nairobi’s City Square is the epitome of post-colonial monuments. Its mounting was the gesture par excellence of overthrowing British dominion. The only modernist monuments are those affiliated to President Daniel Moi. His regime had to fight to unite the citizens. A parallel is drawn between this political effort and the artistic style of choice.

A discussion of the non-prevalence of the modernist style in articulating modern identity follows. And, in conclusion, the article points out that though both colonial and post-colonial monuments are fabricated out of modern materials and techniques, they cannot be termed modernist works of art. Modernism, as a style that bespeaks a culture, is unavoidably underpinned on western culture (European and American) of the 20th century.


Article received: December 18, 2019; Article accepted: January 31, 2020; Published online: April 15, 2020; Original scholarly paper

Author Biography

Lydia W. Muthuma

Lydia Muthuma is a lecturer in the department of visual arts at the Technical University of Kenya. She is also a member of the Academic Committee for the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, the Kenya College of Arms and is the current chair of UNESCO’s national committee for the memory of the world. Dr. Muthuma’s research interests are the historiography of contemporary art in Eastern Africa. Her recent published works include: “The Representation of Womanhood in Kenya’s Contemporary Painting: Mukabi’s mama kibanda” (Paralaxe 1, 2019: 38–52); “The conservation of public monuments as a tool for building collective identity in Nairobi” (in Conservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage in Kenya: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach, ed. Anne-Marie Deisser and Mugwima Njuguna. London: UCL Press, 2016). She curated an exhibition: “Changing Perspectives: Nairobi past and present, a photographic story” hosted by Bristol Archives and National Museums of Kenya in June-September 2019.


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How to Cite

Muthuma, L. W. (2020). Modern Kenyan Identity: Crafting a Nation Through Monuments. AM Journal of Art and Media Studies, (21), 25–43.



Contemporary East African Aesthetics – Guest Section Editor Lydia W. Muthuma