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

African artists reimagine the humble yellow Jerrycan

Because many in Africa lack access to formal water sources (in Lagos as few as 1 in 10), the yellow jerrycan is everywhere. Peruse any news article about girls on the continent and count the jerrycans, sitting beside a muddy pond, being filled underneath a water pump, balanced precariously by a child scarcely larger than one.

Originally designed by the German military, Allied forces eventually recognised their superior design and manufactured millions, helping to change the course of the Second World War, making a particular impact on the North African campaign.

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image courtesy of the artist kharumwa.tumblr.com

Since then the cans have proliferated across the continent, shipped to African ports filled with cooking oil and diesel and repurposed to carry water, local brew, petrol. Today they are manufactured locally in many places on the continent, but because of relative poverty and their enduring durability, most are recycled and reused over and over again.

In Ghana they are named Kufuor gallons, after the presidency marked by the 1994 water crisis. This history, as well as the omnipresence of the yellow containers in a landscape burdened by plastic waste, make them attractive options for artists who are interested in commenting on the political.

In the jerrycans Jeremiah Quarshie sees a symbol of the strength of Ghanaian women which he then represents in his hyperrealist portaits. In his paintings, the cans are a throne for women of diverse backgrounds. They are the great equalizer; during the water crises, rich or poor, everyone needed them.

“It always looks like African women carry a certain magnitude of strength.”

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Jeremiah Quarshie

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s Afrogallonism movement uses jerrycans to make large scale installations and performance art that comments on waste and the environment.

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Serge Attukwei Clottey via Contemporaryand

 

Deeply embedded in the community in which he works, Clottey’s expansive works ask people to consider alternative uses for the plastic rather than throwing them into the gutters and onto the beach.

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Photo of the artist via Griotmag

Other artists take advantage of human pareidolia to give life to the otherwise anonymous and identical objects. In his masks, Beninois artist Romuald Hazoumè continues a tradition of Yoruba mask-making, imbuing each with the symbols of the orishas.

He does this most effectively in his breathtaking work “La Bouche du Roi” which uses jerrycans to make the link between the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary black market petrol-runners between Benin and Nigeria. The work, which references the 18th-century print of the Brookes, a slave ship that was used by abolitionists, is a deeply powerful meditation on past and continued economic exploitation, in which the dehumanised petrol containers (slaves) are given back their identities.

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Romuald Hazoumé’s La Bouche du Roi

In Kenyan artist Cephas Mutua Muthini’s work the jerrycan becomes not the individual, but the everyman. Depicting scenes of protest that are common across the continent and the globe, the angry men could be anyone, anywhere. His work portrays both human capacity for war and and an innate desire for peace.

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image courtesy of the artist
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image courtesy of the artist

The jerrycans are a favoured subject for Ugandan photographer Martin Kharumwa. He’s a friend of mine, so I asked him to talk about why

“It is uniquely minimalist and beautiful which appeals to me, I tried to see if I can glamourize this mundane thing”

In one series, Kharumwa photographs the various objects used to seal the jerrycan after the red cap has long been lost.

“It spoke to these little everyday sculptures that we do.” His work has more to say about African ingenuity. Indeed the yellow jerrycans seem to be one item in an ultra-capitalist world that has escaped extreme branding, commodification and planned obsolescence.

“The brokenness of something doesn’t justify it not being used, like a lost piece doesn’t justify you getting a new one, you just find a creative way to seal the cap”

Jerrycans! Whether weighted by history or asymbolic and appealing in their anonymity, African artists continue to be inspired by their ability to be remade anew.

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Courtesy of the artist kharumwa.tumblr.com

The women of Michael Soi’s work

soi1It is a failure of the imagination that we cannot see the feminism in the wide-eyes and exaggerated secondary sex characteristics of Michael Soi’s women.

This is okay. I know patriarchy is complex and confronting it is confusing. It is 2016 and Kim Kardashian is posting nude selfies alongside womanist statements on her instagram. This is not the angry, prudish misandry that you were told is feminism.

Soi’s work; accessible, brightly coloured pop art takes on East African social hypocrisy with a wry smile. Police officers hold their hands out for bribes, dreadheads bed white women in pursuit of “The Dutch Visa” and everyone places their hands possessively over the breasts and buttocks of the sex workers depicted.

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all images courtesy of the Artist’s facebook page

Soi has been accused of misogyny because of the voluptuous women that he loves to paint. Their lips are full, their eyes are wide or hidden behind a fashionable pair of oversized sunglasses, and their bums callipygous. Often their expressions are blank as they twirl around the stripper pole or put their hands down the pants of a mzungu. As a result, the artist’s depictions of African women have been called “problematic”. Of course Soi’s work must be debated and questioned, but I would argue that to accuse Soi of sexism is to fall short in one’s interrogation.

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Soi takes on taboo issues; corruption, moral policing by a highly corrupt state, commercial sex work and the commodificiation of interracial romance. Sex workers are women too, women who often come into confrontation with the state as they try to make a living in a deeply patriarchal society. When a prostitute must bribe a police officer with a blowjob to avoid a night in jail while her high society John gets off scot free, will feminism not defend her? When sex workers defend their right to walk around late at night, to wear what they please, aren’t these rights that all women benefit from? Is it not feminist language that allows us to look at Soi’s paintings and discuss women’s objectification, their place in society as the global “sex class”, the difference between seeing and being seen? When we look at the women in Soi’s vivid paintings only as objects of male pleasure (in much the same way as the male characters depicted do) are we not denying them their agency? If you look at the women of Soi’s paintings and do not wonder what they are thinking, what choices brought them to this place, is this a failure of our imaginations, or Michael Soi’s?

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Soi’s oeuvre features a range of women from the fully dressed, afro-ed, kitenge-ed, and dignified to the beweave-ed, Monroe pierced and panty-clad. If we come away from an examination of his work talking only about the latter, is this the fault of the artist’s or our own as an audience and society?

Michael Soi’s exhibition “Kampala; The Social Circles” is currently showing at Afri Art Gallery until 31st March 2016. All images courtesy of the Artist’s facebook page

Defining Africa

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Blinky Bill, photo by Darlyne Komukama

I spent last weekend at the Africa Nouveau festival in Nairobi. It was a last minute decision, to jump on the 14-hour bus ride from Kampala, but I couldn’t resist the line up.. A general rule; when you get the chance to see the artists who get you excited when you read about them on the internet, take it (alaji, eh-eh), go. Go; the continent is vast, plane tickets are expensive, FOMO is real.

#NewAfricas, #AfricaistheFuture, #AfricavsEverybody, #AfricaRising, #AfricaisNow, #AfricaNouveau. The words cross t-shirts as slogans, and beats as lyrics. For every tagline though, that we use to “rebrand” the Dark Continent, there is a thousand word think-piece which asks what these words mean to the average African in 2015, who has a smartphone but no regular supply of electricity.

Africa is a country. Africa is a concept in a Taylor Swift video. It exists outside of time. When is Africa? To most of the world we are black cultures indistinguishable and ahistorical. White people can string their lineage back to the Vikings. African people’s history begins with the white explorers who “discovered” it, before that is a black hole.  We are constantly being exhorted, often stridently, in Marcus Garvey speeches sampled in Damien Marley songs, or in whatsapp forwards of talks by PLO Lumumba; stop thinking of yourselves as perpetual victims subjects blown on the wind of a racist hegemony that has stripped us of much of our history.

“If you cannot do it, if you are not prepared to do it, then you will die. You race of cowards, you race of imbeciles, you race of good-for-nothings. If you cannot do what other men have done, what other races have done, what other nations have done, then you yourself have died.”

But how boring it is to be lectured at for 100 years, whether by insiders or by ignorant outsiders with self-serving agendas. The image of Africa belongs to everyone but young Africans; There is power in naming, in defining a “New Africa”. To control the definition is to control the narrative. My Africa is. My Africa is not. A billion reasons to believe in Africa (and a billion bottles of Coca Cola to be sold).

This is why events like Africa Nouveau are so vital to the continent, the result of hard work and aspirations of people like Muthoni DQ and her Blankets and Wine team; artists and entrepreneurs who want to make a living and a contribution. Artistic aspirations are not limited to those with the resources to fund them, we will make our art and music out of mud and strings. Crowd- or donor-funded or simply funded by the sweat on bus seats and Kampala streets, we will make something where there was nothing.

Artists like those on, and who produced the line-up last weekend help us stay on beat. Acts like Just a Band, Fantasma, Boddhi Satva, DJ Satelite, Jojo Abot, keep us motivated, inspired, focused, and aware. The infectious energy of Blinky Bill, Daniel “NairobiDhobi” Muli, and Spoek Mathambo onstage; the historic and personal stories that inspire Jojo Abot’s EP Fyfya Woto; those who mine kuduro beats and SA House beats to create something new, they keep us on beat. Those who get us on stage and tell us how West African Ewe culture is like East African culture, keep us on beat. Those in the audience who won’t let the guitarist off stage without 5 encores even though he is performing Zulu Maskandi music which they have zero experience with, keep us on beat. Our similarities and our differences bind us and keep us on beat. Multi-genre independent artists like Blitz the Ambassador, who create new modes of surviving economically, while pursuing creative impulse and a desire for social justice in a global economy that tries very hard to place at the very bottom of the ladder.

Africans anxious to change the narrative, to rebrand, not for what others think of us but because of what we think of ourselves.

Artists creating community around values and skills that will save us; ecology, ubuntu, inclusion, freedom and hustle

Africa is right on time.

Reclaiming Lady

My current auditory obsession is this remake of Fela Kuti’s 1974 song Lady, by tUnE-yArDs, featuring ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru. It is the first single from the second Red Hot compilation, (RED) Hot + Fela, which will raise funds for HIV/AIDS research.

My love for this version is so strong it is almost sexual. Angelique Kidjo is a goddess as always, her lead vocals are full of grunts and gymnastics that call to mind Fela’s energetic stage presence. ?uestlove, the biggest proponent of Fela in mainstream Western music is as ever, the cool backbone of the track. tUnE-yArDs quirky harmonies are just left-of-centre enough to stand on top of the amazing things the brass section, represented by Rubblebucket, are doing. This version manages to inject even more energy into the song, which if you know anything about Fela Kuti and his long musical reign at The Shrine, is quite an achievement. The climax of the vocal harmonies and brass at the end, will make your arm hair stand up and take notice.

Fela’s music was always political, and Merrill Garbus’ (of tUnE-yArDs) choice to populate this song with female vocalists is a political one. The original song was a criticism of what Fela saw of African women’s embrace of Western values.

If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”

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Found Objects: Street Art Kampala

We have short memories here. Part of it is self-preservation and desensitization, how else do you explain reading about our money being misappropriated and stolen every single day in the newspaper and feeling nothing?

We have had a long and bloody time in our short history as an independent nation and therefore it is necessary to re-forget every day that our President is a war criminal, that our cabinet is full of thieves. That way we don’t have to consider our own role in creating, nurturing and enabling these leaders we choose every election cycle.

Because there are levels of war criminals and degrees of genocide and there is distance between me and you and Kampala and Gulu and Kigali and Darfur and Port au Prince and the Bronx and time does not heal all wounds but we keep going anyway.

Chimamanda Adichie, who reminds us that when it comes to Africa Many Stories Matter, has a short story collection called The Thing Around Your Neck, my favourite of which is The Headstrong Historian. It tells the story of Nwambga, a widow who protects herself from her in-laws by giving her son to be educated in the ways of white missionaries, and her granddaughter who grows up to write a reclamationist history of Nigeria.  I love this story because how many African stories are blessed with the continuity of both pre and post-colonial history. How many of us know the multigenerational epic that is our own family history?

If the damage that colonialism did to our history can be compared to complete retrograde amnesia , then not only must we go back and relearn our past, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the present. We must force ourselves to see the malnourished kids on Jinja road as if seeing them for the first time. Art has a role to play in making us see and feel the same images again, differently.

Remember this image?

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