State of Emergency by Max Pinckers et al.

Text by Josh Lustig
First published in FT Weekend Magazine, 25 May 2024

“We are going to forget the past and look forward to the future,” announced Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first post-colonial president, in
his 1964 victory speech. It was an act of forgiveness and hope, but also one of deliberate collective amnesia, aided by the British Colonial Office’s destruction of all evidence of its crimes in Kenya, which included detention camps, torture and public lynchings.

Since 2015, Belgian photographer Max Pinckers has worked with several Mau Mau War Veterans Associations (MMWVA) to try to grapple with this. “I have always been interested in the manipulative nature of photographs and how they can be used for ideological purposes,” he tells me.

In the project, veterans re-enact events that took place in Kenya more than half a century ago, such as the interrogation depicted here. Julius G Kimari, who represents the MMWVA in Murang’a, recalls the participants’ enthusiasm.

“[It] presented the hope that these pictures would show the world the inhuman treatment the colonialists perpetrated on us,” he says. “[And] it brought an inspiring opportunity for the elderly freedom fighters to... enact scenes that are otherwise difficult for them to explain in words.” For many, it was a deeply emotional experience.

The result is an extraordinary book of archive material, round-table discussions and vivid recreations that reveal experiences that were systematically repressed for generations.