Kenya: Artists explore the question of identity and dispossession in exhibition

By Nduta Waweru

The question of identity, and belonging features in various kinds of works. The need to be a part of a group, community and society is intrinsic, but what happens to those who are deprived of this need?

An art exhibition called Remote: the Yearning of the Dispossessed in Nairobi, Kenya by four artists has been exploring and interrogating the question of identity and social belonging. Maral Bolouri, Asteria Malinzi, Joshua Obaga and Jackie Karuti, through their artwork, explore the idea of existence in various spaced either public or private.

“Our social constructs, created to protect us and organize societies, have failed us. Our rules and laws have entrapped us. We have been dislocated from our environment, and estranged from ourselves,” a statement describing the exhibition noted.

Maral Bolouri

Bolouri, who considers herself a rootless tree, born in Iran and living in Kenya, explores gender identity and how the society interacts with people with the female genitalia. She chose an interactive display featuring representations of female genitalia on the wall. In front of the display is a huge box representing the public space, containing pieces of papers with terms usually relate to female bodies including slut, prostitute and so on. In the big box is a smaller box representing the private/safe space. Viewers have been able to interact with the display by throwing the papers in the bog box, some of which ended up in the small box, thus highlighting the issue of boundaries.

Bolouri sought to provoke conversation over the society perceives people with female genitalia. Through the exhibition, she wants to know how such individuals survive in a society that shames, desires, controls and politicise their bodies. 

The display is a continuation of her “Boxes” series, born from frustration in her private and professional life and the gender power play that influences life.

Asteria Malinzi

While Bolouri focused on the outside, Malinzi looked inside in her work “Middle Passage”. Influenced by the crossing of slaves to the Americas, Malinzi used the ocean as a tool of reflection on time and memory.

Malinzi, a photographer based in Tanzania, used photographs of her nude body to capture the anxiety of life. The image captured in 2015 was shot in Cape Town at a time Malinzi had lost her passport. She found herself questioning the aspect of home and the formation of identity and vulnerability.

This introspection is part of her exploration of the anxiety of the slaves who had no control and had no knowledge of their fate. The use of long exposure in the images is not accidental; in fact, it is influenced by anthropological and colonial photography about slavery.

Karuti’s work

Malinzi’s look into the past in relation to the future was a contrast to Karuti’s outlook of the future through technology.  Karuti’s video installation, The Planets, looks at the passage of time in a world filled with anxiety over technology use.

Karuti takes an observer position to interrogate the space that stifles yet liberates with its distractions and creations. The video is collage of worlds apart: the gas towers in London, the snakes and ladders game; the universe and an artificial intelligence called Hanna.  This world is filled with significant gasps, pops and sighs depicting the oscillating moods as one moves through the chaos.  Her constant message through the video is one: ‘We are nothing. We’re barely here at all.’

Joshua Obaga

The chaos disappears in the full frame photos of Obaga in a series called Troglodyte. He uses photos that have gone through a series of processes to display apprehension of living in a society that does not accept people with a different perception of reality.  The sadness and melancholy in the images are highlighted with the words accompanying them.

The series seeks to question the false notion on gender in Kenya.

“The pictures, each created with a different technique portray the triggers and the emptiness, the loss of motivation and the suffocation that comes with living in one’s cave. There is a frustration that might extinguish one’s inner light,” he says.

The exhibition was curated by Zihan Kassam, and assisted by Nyambura M. Wariungi.

First Published by this is Africa

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