Aspen artist Ajax Axe brings Earth Force Climate Command to Kenya
The activist art initiative that birthed the eye-opening Aspen Space Station installation here in summer 2021 has now gone global.
Aspen-based artist Ajax Axe teamed with a group of Kenyan artists and nonprofits to open the Lamu Space Station last month on the island of Lamu about 60 miles south of the Somali border. Run by the self-proclaimed “Earth Force Climate Command,” the African station is built around the same principles as the original here, calling for the billionaire class to invest in saving natural resources on Earth instead of going space. It’s bullet-pointed mission: “1. Stay on Earth. 2. Enjoy it. 3. Stop thinking we can torch this planet and then escape to another one.”
Now nearing the end of its month-long run, the Lamu station took over an abandoned stone house and filled it with futurist-minded art in an interactive space where artists — donning oversized woven space helmets — and community members can exchange ideas (the collective invited billionaire spacemen Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to attend and “come back to Earth,” though none took them up on it) about 60 miles south of the Somali border.
“I’ve been thinking about the ways the Space Station can create images to bring awareness of the environment and the destruction of the environment,” contributing artist Abdul Rop, part of a 12-artist collective in Nairobi, said in a recent video interview from Lamu.
Along with Rop and Axe, the station features works by Lincoln Mwangi, Anna Mokeira, Shizemonize, Patrick Mwangi and Mohamed Taha Shariff.
Together, they’re aiming to create new narratives to replace the idea that humans can trash Earth, embrace climate collapse and find a new home.
Like the Aspen station, the Lamu installation has been the focus of community events throughout its run including workshops on futurist storytelling, design and architecture with students from a nearby orphanage.
“The reaction in the community has been good, people love it,” Axe said.
While the Aspen station was on the backside of the mountain and difficult for the public to access, the Lamu station is near the middle of a village outside of Lamu Town and drew about 150 people to its opening, with roughly 40 or more visiting daily.
Turning the old house — which had been abandoned for 25 years — into a space station was a labor of love that required the artists cleaning extensively and removing some 60 bags of trash (on this car-less island, they had to walk or donkey-ride them to the dump).
“We felt strongly about having a unique location, not just to have a white cube — that’s what I’ve been trying to get away from with this project,” Axe explained. “Plus, a lot of the community wouldn’t come to normal gallery opening.”
The environmental issue most top of mind in Lamu is ocean pollution, as tons of trash washes up on the island’s shores — most of it plastic that has floated from Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.
Much of the artwork at the Lamu Space Station makes use of the objects and microplastics that arrive on the shore.
“I was excited to tell a story about how these things affect our lives daily,” said artist Lincoln Mwangi, who drew and painted on deformed plastic that washed up.
The artists went to a nearby uninhabited island and collected pieces from the literal tons of trash there and used it to build a narrative about Lamu in the year 2799 for the exhibition.
“We went to Mars, we destroyed Mars, we come back from Mars, and we arrived here in this archipelago,” Axe said of the future narrative. “And we find all of the evidence of another civilization that also destroyed itself. So we made this thing called the Apocalypse Investigation Department. One of the things that we’d do is we collect trash, and we try to figure out what these people were doing with all of this stuff that we find on the beach.”
Among the finds are thousands of plastic lighters and countless flip-flops (both float and neither disintegrates, so they end up on Lamu in overwhelming numbers).
And though the Aspen Space Station came to fruition first, this project actually originated in early 2021 in Lamu, where Axe has long spent time and made art. It started as the artist explored basket-weaving techniques and used local materials for sculptures of space equipment. Plans for a space station last year were scuttled amid coronavirus shutdowns in Kenya.
Up next, Axe is planning to install a space station on Lesbos in Greece, working with refugees there. And the Aspen Space Station is due to return this summer.
In the weeks after the Lamu Space Station opened, the software company Salesforce launched its new #TeamEarth advertising campaign making a strikingly similar call to action that Axe and her crew have been sounding since last summer. The company’s Super Bowl ad features Matthew McConaughey in a hot air balloon ridiculing billionaire spacemen and saying, “It’s not time to escape, it’s time to engage.”
Axe sees the similarity as more than coincidence.
“Aspen is full of influential people during the summer and we hoped our propaganda campaign would have an impact on how people are imagining the future,” she said via email. “Given how closely their messaging mirrors ours, it would have been nice if they could have acknowledged Earth Force Climate Command since they are a multi-billion dollar company and we are a tiny nonprofit who did all of programming last year on a budget of $10,000.
“If Salesforce is serious about their campaign, they should get in touch with us and we can help them make the future here on Earth sexier than Mars.”