Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi
09 – 25.01.2019
It’s a strange task writing about an exhibition from afar. There’s an element of divination and distillation akin to the ancient art of scrying: the practice of divining signs and foreshadowings from crystal balls, mirrors, tea leaves or fire. The precarity there being, “How do I discern what lies therein with certainty?”. The price of misinterpreting signs and signifiers can by be a high one, most especially when dealing with the ideas, emotions and practices of others. It’s important to be aware of the stakes of misrepresentation when foraying into divinatory practices. From the faintly mirrored surface of my computer screen I sat looking at pictures and videos of Kenyan artist Kaloki Nyamai’s latest offering, ‘Mwaki Nginya Evinda Enge (The Fire Next Time)’, curated from a far by South African curator Khanyisile Mbongwa at the Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. I later interviewed both Nyamai and Mbongwa to further attune my scrying, to find that I was in good company as both the artist and curator spoke of this process of divination and distillation, albeit through differing mediums: Nyamai through the mediums of embodied intervention and visual art; Mbongwa through spatial and energetic interventions and propositions. The result was a collection of thoughts, questions, considerations, frustrations and an intense desire to get to the nucleus of ‘the thing’, to articulate with surgical precision the work’s intention, process and result. A gathering of sorts.
Another black maker who was invoked in this gathering was James Baldwin, the prolific American writer and cultural theorist whose seminal collection of essays on blackness Nyamai’s exhibition shared the name of. Baldwin writes in letter form to his 14 year old nephew in My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation, detailing the central role of race in the construction of the United States of America and then on his relationship with the church as a youth in Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind. The intimacy in these texts that expound on themes both personal and political, sacred and social, is a quality reflected in Nyamai’s work.
Each artwork a carefully constructed yet cacophonous litany featuring the shaded silhouettes of people and animals; shades and ghosts and half-rememberings. Another invocation, perhaps of those we have lost to too many fires. Just over a week ago at the time of writing this, on the 15th of January, there was an attack on the DusitD2 hotel and business complex in Nairobi which saw 21 dead and dozens injured. The attack was reportedly carried out by the Somali-based, Islamist group al-Shabab. In Cape Town, just three months ago, thousands were displaced in fires in informal settlements in Khayelitsha and Philippi, with one person dying in the fires in Khayelitsha. These are all areas predominantly peopled by people of colour. The precarity of black life is a leitmotif all to familiar for those of the black experience.
In my conversations with Mbongwa, they were adamant on their desire to move towards a practice of emancipation, joy and play in their curatorial practice. “Why do we still need to be in pain as black people?” they asked me. A response to the the consumption of trauma porn and black suffering that litters media outlets far and wide. The fact of the precarity of black life at this, the late capitalist, post-colonial, neocolonial, patriarchal juncture of human history is one that is all too familiar, so why does there remain a subtle though proliferate expectation for articulations of blackness to be underscored by pain, almost as a qualifier? Mbongwa’s practice is one that neither ignores the fact of black pain nor centralises it, but is in search of ways to hold it in tandem with the multiplicities that are contained in the human experience, approaching “curating as curing”. Curing both in the sense of healing, emancipating as well as preserving. In this practice Mbongwa believes archival, embodied interventions to be seminal. Colonial contact with black people and people of the global south has resulted in a displacement of archives and a resultant displacement of self. Here, Mbongwa proposes that the archive to which we can look to with the most veracity is the one we carry with us: our bodies. This is where Mbongwa encouraged Nyamai to take their artistic practice towards a live, embodied practice for the purposes of this exhibition.
The performative intervention in ‘Mwaki Nginya Evinda Enge’ was Nyamai’s first public foray into utilizing live performance as a medium. It is worth noting here that both Mbongwa and Nyamai are adamant on conceiving of this kind of work not as performance but as intervention, the former implying that the work is somehow removed from the here and now whereas the latter implies a confrontation and a moment of ‘bringing attention to’, an extravasation of affect. Though a seemingly simple, semantic supplantation, the implications of this kind of thinking with regard to black performance art are important. Underscored by a not-too-distant history of being put on display in museums, human zoos and galleries the ‘performativity’ of blackness and the resultant consumption thereof is one that remains in much contestation in the contemporary moment. Though the shift from performance to intervention does not necessarily interrupt this colonial logic, it certainly offers us a way of languaging the process by which we consider the decolonization of the black body in these contexts.
That said, in Nyamai’s intervention I felt the tension between these two things: the desire to use the emotive and the embodied as a medium of extravasation and confrontation, and the socially constructed gaze of the black body that reduces it to an object that houses only trauma. How to speak of the wound without reopening it? How to speak of the wound without leaving it to fester? This friction is near impossible to evade when entering the domain of performance art as a body read as black.
Nyamai in their intervention at one point took what looked like ash and blackened there skin with it, the black smoke billowing around them reminiscent of the mythology of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Though this phoenix was one that seemed doomed to remain in it’s ashen stasis. A reading that left me heartbroken yet strangely anticipant. Nyamai said this particular visual allegory was a representation of, “Not feeling black enough”. A phrase that raised similar kinds of sentiments I had carried my whole life through of not performing the requisite attributes that would qualify my blackness. The qualifications of what constitutes “black enough” fill me with too much sadness to even journey into.
All this to say that the legacies inherited from the colonial construction of race, the real precarity it has facilitated for those racialized as black and the multiple consciousnesses we as black people have to interpellate in order to make sense of our lives are all richly explored in this offer from Nyamai. There is in this exhibition a gathering and a colliding of histories, of discourses, of loss, of attempts to heal, of the personal, of the political, of that which is both and neither at the same time. All underscored by the motif of ash. The presence of which, it cannot be discerned, is the before or the after.