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.

Soi6 The dutch visa
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.

Imagine Uganda

If money was no object, what would you be doing with your life? If you did not have to worry about how your hypothetical future children would eat, or what your Aunty would say, or how you were going to pay the rent, what would be your reason to get up in the morning? If failure was not a possibility, how would you expend your passion? If there were no limits, what would you do with your life?

When my little sister was a kid, she wanted to be a marine biologist, hairdresser and makeup artist, all AT THE SAME TIME. Today she is about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and we are all very proud of her. At the same time I kind of miss the naïveté and optimism that would allow a little African girl, living in a landlocked country to want to be a marine biologist. When you are a kid, anything is possible. Never mind that you hate science, never mind that you have only ever seen dolphins in books and on TV, the world is your fucking oyster!

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My very first ambition in life was to be a dancer for Madonna. We had a little blue tape, a pirated copy of her album “Like a Virgin” that Dad would play in the car and I knew all the words, (though not what “virgin” meant). Now I look back and I am like damn, I could have done that! Madonna is 50-something years old but she is still dancing! Instead of touring the world and popping Cristal in the club, I sit in my little office typing proposals and reports like a trained monkey.

What happens as you grow up? I ask, but I know, I know because it happened to me. You tell someone on the playground you want to be Madonna’s dancer and they laugh in your face. You ask your mom for chocolate at the supermarket and she tells you “do you know how hard I work for this money? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”

You tell your parents you want to study art as one of your A levels, instead of biology, which you are failing anyway and are told “you’re not going to spend my school fees finger painting with your hippy drug addict teacher, you will study Biology, and you will do it well!”

You decide you’re going to break free, live your dreams and study photography and they hold an intervention on your behalf. (On TV interventions the nice mzungu family sit you down and read you letters of how much they love you, in Africa they lock you in a room and beat you until you come to your senses).

How many of us ended up studying law, accounting, business, engineering RATHER than our passion? How many of us get a little buzz in our down-belows when we read torts or write proposals?

As a working man, you finally get fed up kissing your boss’ ass and hoping to get in a car accident every weekday morning. You decide that you’re going to do it now, quit your job, go into business and selling sand to the Arabs. You write an award-winning business plan, make an appointment with the bank for a loan, and hit up all your benevolent relatives for support. Then your girlfriend misses her period and your dream flies out the window.

Chris Devers flickr

I have heard it suggested that imagination and creativity a privilege; that when you are worrying about your next meal you don’t have time to create the next Mona Lisa.

I say, screw that.

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