Nudity and Protest: A Conversation with Jess Atieno

Jess Atieno is both a fine and graphic artist having graduated with a degree in Graphic Arts from the Technical University of Kenya. Much of her work explores the layers within human interaction as it references to her space, memories of her past and culture through mixed media and installation. Her recent work has especially explored how these interactions between self and other have manifested in the subject of feminism and femininity. Jessica has shown in various exhibitions across Kenya as well as within the East Africa Region, most recently her series Full Frontal. She discusses her work here with curator and researcher Moses Serubiri in the context of renewed interest in nudity as protest by contemporary African women activists.

Moses Serubiri:  Recently, you installed a series of nude black women figures. What was the context, and what were some of the reactions, responses?

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Jess Atieno. Caged Birds (2015)

Jess Atieno: Yes. #FullFrontal (Kuona Trust, 2015) particularly looked at the body as burden with special focus on how women have responded to the stereotypical trappings of femininity such as weakness, and submission. Aside from the installation, I have also applied the female body in my work to subvert these narratives that have through time informed society’s perception on femininity and feminism.

M.S: Margaretta wa Gacheru in the Business Daily wrote about your installation at Kuona:

“I know I have shocked and upset some people although no one has said so to my face,” Atieno told BDLife. Even at Kuona, she felt that some people questioned her motivation for painting nudes, especially one of two nudes gracefully standing together. The implications of that one especially make some of her critics quite uncomfortable. What is a bit disturbing about her nudes is that they all don’t have heads.”

JA: I must admit that the work received mixed reactions. More importantly toward the idea of feminism but I am glad because this forced me to unlearn and to reinvent the idea of feminism to — and for — myself. This process of unlearning and reinvention continues to inform my current practice.

MS: How have you reinvented feminism (or narratives of feminism) for yourself?

JA: I first engaged with the idea of feminism through the lenses of Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir and Rebecca Brown. I like to think of it as an “imported version of feminism”. While I greatly appreciate their guiding voices, I have continuously worked to bring the idea closer home by drawing its meaning from my own experiences and daily realities.

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Jess Atieno. Caged Birds (2015)

MS: Regarding the Stella Nyanzi protest, Angelo Kakande’s analysis of the episode points towards the response from Collin Sekajugo, and indeed society at large, as being largely against her nudity. What are your thoughts on the artist’s reaction? Should artists be reacting to political protest? And do you agree with Kakande’s analysis?

JA:  First, YES! Why should artists not create work as social and political commentary?

The fist of Stella Nyanzi was a bold and timely contribution and Dr. Kakande’s analysis was comprehensive and shed light on relevant issues raised by Sekajugo in relation to particular pieces…. surely the conversation extends beyond Nyanzi’s actions and into the larger discourse of nude protest in light of a patriarchal society.

MS: I agree.  

JA: However, I disagree with Dr. Kakande when he states that Sekajugo might have been elusive of Nyanzi’s nudity and vulgarity.

A nude protest relies solely on its conduit, the nude body. In its rawness, vulnerability and at the same time, its power. Yes. However, as I have just mentioned, the conversation goes beyond the nudity. We now start to question why and not how. An artist does not have to be literal to make a point and the point here is neither the obscenity of Nyanzi’s body nor her vulgarity. But WHY?  

M.S:  It seems that there is a difference between pre-colonial social moral value and recent nationalist morality. What do either say about nudity?

JA: Well, in my opinion, “the recent” nationalist morality borrows from pre-colonial social, moral values. Without doubt, African nationalism predates colonialism. However, we cannot disregard the role of colonial oppression and the struggle for independence in shaping perspectives on African nationalism today. I think the question on morality reflects on decolonizing knowledge and what we have come to know as morality and finding alternate ways to produce this knowledge.

MS: What are some of the alternative ways to produce knowledge?

JA: There are endless possibilities in art, both visual and performance, in literature and in electronic media. Look at artists, writers and curators who are continuously creating work and spaces that push boundaries and reclaim African perspectives on identity, power, sexuality and many more pertinent matters on the continent.

MS: And you point out colonial oppression and the struggle for independence but there is a strong criticism of that struggle by the women’s movement under which some have stated the outright misogyny of postcolonial African leaders. I have had conversations with Rebecca Rwakabukoza in which we talk about the slut shaming of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth Bagaya, who denied the sexual advances of Idi Amin. If we are talking about Idi Amin’s nationalism, then it’s feminism or its interest in women’s liberation in places of power is certainly only ceremonial, and symbolic.

JA: Well, misogyny within post-colonial African leadership, again, predates colonialism. Many if not most African traditions, beliefs and practices have through history, sidelined, prejudiced and even traumatized women. It is a tragedy that misogyny still plagues our systems but on the other hand, the rules of the game are changing. The Nyanzis, Bagayas and other phenomenal women out there are taking back the power and are putting up a united front to subvert these narratives. That’s feminism!

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Jess Atieno. Caged Birds. 2015
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