- Introduction of the artist
- Discussion and analysis of Miriam Syowia Kyambi´s "Between us"
- Conclusion. Miriam and her art in the context of queer
1. Introduction of the artist
Miriam Syowia Kyambi, born 1979, is an all-round artist, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Working with different materials like clay, paint or sisal and diverse other media such as photographs, video installations or live performances, her art is very varied and hard to summarize under only one artistic style.
For her personal education, Syowia Kyambi studied, worked and lived in the U.S.A. where, in 2002, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In spite of her young age, she had already had exhibitions in several countries including Sweden, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Romania, Mexico, Mali, South Africa and, of course, Kenya. Her works deal with the main topics of history and politics, social situations and sexuality. She especially deals with how these frameworks affect us personally and our contemporary society not only in Africa, but also in a global context. With regard to the general topic of this wiki Syowia Kyambi´s art is not primarily specialized in sexuality, queerness or the feminist movement. Rather her personal perspective often works as a starting point and therefore represents her own female perspective.
Along with her exhibitions, the artist offers and participates in workshops that involve some of her works and discuss the topics mentioned above to get her audience to talk about subjects they normally would not talk or think about. To sum it up, Syowia Kyambi does not pursue the goal of spreading one particular message or content only. She also aims at getting her audience to cope with complex and sometimes difficult or tabooed matters. The exchange of thoughts and opinions as well as the personal effort of dealing with art and content are the most important things for her.1
2. Discussion and analysis of Miriam Syowia Kyambi´s "Between Us"
Syowia Kyambi´s "Between Us" is actually a multimedia art piece including live performance art, installation, video, photography and a workshop. It took place over four weeks at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013-2014 and was also shown at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in 2013.2 Creating a project with several outputs, "Between Us" exists also as a film component, named "Between Us: Wedding Dress". To get an impression of this piece and its social or political contents a shortened video version of "Between us" (Film 22min, 2013) is described and discussed in the following.
Between Us (Film 2013), 00:20.
The first thing the viewer is confronted with is an empty, rustic and - apart from two mirrors on the wall - an unfurnished room. A big window brightens the setting from the right side. You can see a bucket with a piece of fabric and some shoes in the middle of the room. After a few seconds, music begins to play quietly and three women appear and start to get dressed, do their hair or start to fold laundry. One of them is covering her hair with something that looks like a pair of tights. The laundry the women are folding or wearing can quickly be recognized as lingerie. Some of them have animal prints on them, a lot of them are made of lace or have lace ornaments. The underwear looks kind of expensive which creates an ambivalent atmosphere between the domestic work, the women are doing and the sensuality or eroticism of the women dressing up and caring about their outward appearance, while folding the laundry.
Between Us (film 2013), 00:35.
Between Us (Film 2013), 03:01.
One woman is shown while putting on a dress. In the next sequence, all of them seem to wear lingerie and keep on sorting through the laundry. Two of them are wearing nightdresses, the third one sexy underpants and an equivalent shirt with flowers and leopard patterns on it. One woman now sits down in her dress and starts to take panties out of the bucket. She begins to disentangle and sort through them while the camera focuses on her hands and the things she is doing with the underwear. In the third minute you can hear footsteps of several people, although you cannot see the other people yet. The camera focus on a high heel of one of the women which corroborates the viewer´s belief that the stepping sounds come from other high heels - maybe it is just the sound of the two other women perambulating in the room.
Between Us (Film 2013), 01:52.
Between Us (Film 2013), 03:08.
At minute 3:25 the process of sorting the underwear seems to be finished. The music changes, a splashy sound accrues and leads over to the second action: the process of washing the underwear in the bucket which is now filled with water and a lot of foamy soap. It looks kind of impractical and tiring how the woman, dressed in leopard-flower-patterned underwear and heels, bend down to reach and wash the underwear in a bucket on the ground. The camera perspective now shows the whole room again where the three women have a bucket each and begin to wash. The wet underwear is distributed on the floor when suddenly, at minute 3:59, an unrecognizable person, dressed in a white overall, enters the room and seems to tidy up with a broom. At first the women do not really seem to care about the fourth person in the room even though the broom touches their feet. Yet, the broom is used so aggressively that the feeling of peace and silence during the domestic work quickly fades away.
Between Us (Film 2013), 03:59.
Between Us (Film 2013), 04:13.
At the same time (4:00) the music becomes more kind of stressed, inharmonic and squeaky. The women now wring out the underwear and hang it up to dry on clothes lines in the same room. They still do not really seem to be bothered by the person sweeping through the entire room, especially around the four buckets on the ground, not even when the broom hits and knocks over two of the buckets and lots of water spills out and covers the ground. The women look up though do not stop what they are doing. They pick up the underwear from the tumbled down buckets and just put them into another one. At minute 4:45 the situation becomes more tense when a second person in overall appears and sweeps aggressively from the left side of the room to the right side where the first person in overall seems to rest in front of the window. From minute 5:05 onwards, both of them turn the room into a final chaos with their brooms. The interpretation of the two person in overall is ambiguous. They could firstly stand for the society in general, that decides that women´s underwear should be hidden or secondly emphasize men´s opinion, that women´s underwear is something one should not wear or show in public. A third approach of interpretation is, that the person in overall represent the society of non-african countries, that show their dissatisfaction towards the handling of this tabooed topic by disturbing the ambivalent picture of women´s perception and especially how these women want to be perceived during their domestic work.
Between Us (Film 2013), 04:45.
Between Us (Film 2013), 05:23.
Between Us (Film 2013), Video Still, Miriam Syowia Kyambi.
At minute 5:30 one woman gently starts to undress one of the overall-wearing people. The person in the white overall tolerates the undressing, and the viewer is now confronted with an almost nude male body. The only things he is wearing are underpants, rubber gloves and shoes. While he starts to look and walk around, the second person in overall gets into the focus of the camera. This person, a man as well, also gets undressed in the middle of the room, but still keeps his pants in the end. The men seem to be calmer now that they are undressed. Meanwhile you can see the other man lying on the wet floor in the background. Another unexpected thing happens at minute 7:30, when the woman in the leopard-patterned underwear bends down next to the man on the floor to function as some kind of seat for one of the other women who takes off her nightdress and sits down on her in black sexy underwear. The third woman - still in a bright nightdress - positions herself right behind the "chair-lady" with the leopard-patterned underwear. They all seem to look into the viewers face for a few seconds.
Between Us (Film 2013), 05:35.
Between Us (Film 2013), 06:25.
The performance seems to be over at minute 7:50: The constellation of the women dissolves and everyone - including both men on the floor - stands up. The music turns from cliff-hanging to a more relaxing and positive sound. The erstwhile 'chair-lady' in the leopard underwear now (8:05) stands in the middle of the four other protagonists and looks to the right side of the room. Her posture appears strong and proud now. The others are positioned in a square around her and bend down a little bit. It seems that after offering herself as seat for the other two women, everyone faces her with respect and gratitude. When she breaks the freeze-frame at minute 8:10 the other protagonists get up again, and it seems as if the process of washing and hanging underwear repeats itself.
Between Us (Film 2013), 07:48.
Between Us (Film 2013), 08:10.
An important difference now is that the men are supporting the women. They work fluently together and, in minute 9:00, one man even begins to dress up with some of the women´s underpants and a bra in front of the mirror. The protagonists undergo a process of assimilation and begin to share their work and even their outward appearance. Regarding to the man that puts on women´s underwear in front of the mirror one could interpret that he starts trying to explore the women´s position or point of view or that even he, as a man, likes to see himself in women´s underwear. The last named approach of interpretation even offers a queer access path to the topic of this art work. So one could say, that in the end of the video the sex of the protagonists becomes more and more irrelevant. The two men in the white overalls - because of their garment - primarily can be classified as sexless, which means, that there are no obvious signs or attributes, that indicate towards femininity or masculinity. Maybe they embody the general society, but as soon, as they get undressed, especially the men´s point of view towards the circumstance of seeing women´s underwear in everyday situations. They seem to be bothered by the washing and hanging of the underwear as well as by the selection of the women´s outfits, and they try to prevent or obstruct the actions of the three women. Like Syowia Kyambi points out in the following interview, sexy underwear is not something that is meant to be worn, shown or talked about in public. A lot of people in Africa - in some countries more than in others - find it obscene to see their neighbour’s underwear on clotheslines. So, the women feel compelled to cover the underwear with towels and hide it from the gaze of other people. As soon as the men put themselves in the women´s place and operate with the underwear themselves, they seem to change their opinion and - in contrast to their initial position - seem to tolerate the underwear as usual objects.
Between Us (Film 2013), 08:50.
Between Us (Film 2013), 08:44.
Between Us (Film 2013), 09:00.
So basically, the installation "Between Us" provokes the viewer’s opinion on whether underwear, as a precarious topic, should be generally accepted in public or should be kept private. It is supposed to get the audience to think about or discuss the reasons for intolerance, acceptance and about who decides which perspective is right and which is represented by the society not only in consideration of the problem with women´s underwear, but furthermore social or political issues, including social injustice in gender inequalities.3 Such inequalities between men and women have been given attention to since the african post-colonial political independence in the 1960´s, but even nowadays still need to be talked about in public, since women still struggle for equal sexual rights in many regions of the african continent, although for example the Kenyan Independence constitution promised equal rights for men and for women.4 Indeed, women´s oppression varies in rural and urban areas, not only in Africa, but still in a global scenario. Women´s struggle for sexual rights has not ended yet.
"Between Us" emerges as a good example for how art can allude to social injustice concerning obsolete ways of thinking and definitely can support the work of women´s organizations or at least can be inspiring for women to not let the injustice get them down.
3. Interview with Miriam Syowia Kyambi
1) When did you start to deal with womanhood or feminity in a cognizant way? Was there a trigger for it?
„I´m not sure if there was a specific moment for me. Because I normally in my work use my own personal narrative as an entry point. It has kind of been there naturally, because I´m a woman, or a girl, at that time. So for me it was very normal to deal with womanhood. It was not like a moment of 'I should do this'. I think for me the entry point was always a personal narrative, especially, like my first installation piece, which was done in 2002 and had to do with my mother´s death, was called Todes Atem (Deaths Breath), so that one - it was very much about that, rather than about womanhood. But because I´m a woman, my entry point comes from that perspective. And so that´s how people place me easily into the box of representing womanhood. It was not a conscious thing to start off with. Although I think it´s a conscious position for me now.“
2) What do you think: does womanhood for you, as an African female artist, mean something else than for us as German students?
„Well I guess it´s quite loaded, because in many ways there are lots of different aspects and relationships to womanhood, but more so to the representation of the feminist movement in the world. I spent a little bit of time in a residency in Sweden, where I got to have some time to research on the feminist movements and I found very little information about contemporary African women artists and how they have contributed to the feminist movement as you would find in the seventies in the States or also the representation of that in Europe. It changed a little bit, so I think also the negotiation for African women is quite different historically, because the communal setup of society was also different to the way it was set up in America. For me, I have more reference points to the States, than I have to Germany, simply, because I looked at artists, who were functioning from the States, like Shapiro and Judy Chicago.
I think it´s quite different in terms of the social negotiation that takes place. The social setup is very communal here and the kind of male-female-hierarchies are quite different. Sometimes it is seen as men are in charge in some communities, when actually women are kind of more in charge. But it´s not, it´s subversive, it´s not very open. So for an outsider, it seems as the opposite, even though it isn´t. And I think just the idea of a nucleus family is like a new phenomenon here, a new structure here. So the issues, that we deal with as women and as artists are a little bit different. Or as women representing a womanhood in their work. I think it´s a bit different."
3) How do you negotiate womanhood in your art? How do you present it? In your work „Between Us“ you show female and male bodies, women washing clothes and lingerie and men getting in touch with them and even assimilating with the other gender. Wich attributes do you use therefore, not just for this work, but in general and why? Are these attributes typically female?
„Again I guess back to my first answer. I use a lot of my personal narrative in my work and then kind of layer that in with other narratives, psycho beyond my personal narration or story. So, because I´m stemming from that, I´m always in the position of looking at my position or relationship to something else. I guess in my installation work and performance work, I think Between Us is a more recent project, that I think would be more useful to look at in terms of answering this question, because it uses a lot of different narratives.
So a woman, who is kind of like not coping so well with the world, which is also something from my previous work called Fracture (i), she kind of walks across the stage in a suit and does not quite manage and kind of collides into worlds or people. In Between Us, there´s another woman, who is looking very much at her kind of different characters. So there are seven performers in the work and everybody kind of contributes their own storyline or energy, which isn´t necessarily easily told to me or the next person. It was not like we sat down and said „okay, this is my storyline“. It was just (like) looking at positions of vulnerability and positions about perception and how you perceived it and how you want to be perceived and how you feel you should be perceived and the navigation around that. The underwear was simply a tool to initiate the perception, and to get the dialogue with the audience going. It´s a very recent material, it has not been there very long. Even in your family setting, if you wash your underwear, you don´t hang it so that your family members can see it. Particularly male family members can´t see it. So it was an easy instrument to get people to start talking. And then they talked about class issues, they talked about what they think somebody´s personality is from the underwear. Underwear and how you negotiate it , is very powerful.
So I guess I use a lot of mirror in my work. Mirrors for the aid of self-reflection and also getting the audience member to see themselves within the constellation. Anyhow, so the three other performers also had their own narratives in there. And some played their sexual image and how they are to be socially appealing and others played on kind of the task of washing and the repetition of that and the domesticity. So it was very layered. I think, it is very layered, how women navigate their lives. The things they deal with are multiple and come from very many different angles and then are dealt with in very many different ways. So it´s not so simple. It´s also not so simply put.“
4) What is the function of the two person in overall? What do they stand for? In the discussion and analyst section we tried to interpret them as society´s or men´s attitude towards the underwear as a tabooed topic. What do you think about that?
"It is always very interesting to hear what people think. Yes, it is a representation of society but I see them more as disrupters. In the work they disrupt the space and they disrupt the women from kind of, i guess in a sense exploring themselves or they just go on minding their own business. It is not so straight forward, neither for me. But I knew that I wanted them to be interrupters and that they have a very masculine presence. But they don´t have to be men to do that. And they kind of get cornered and undressed and they try something different. But ultimately, in the end of the work they go back to what they know. Which I also see happen in our life cycles as well. Like old people in their older age: they go back to what they feel safe with. The overalls were actually originally painting overalls when you paint a house. That´s where they come from. It was a way of covering the whole body and also the fabric and the whiteness has the effect you can´t ignore it. And what they do you can´t ignore. It was not to cover the gender, but it was defenitely a masculine energy."
5) How can you mediate about precarious topics like socio-political or other tabooed themes in Kenya? Do you think that art is a good and efficient way to mediate these topics?
„I guess, I´m always in the context of an art space. So either an art center or an art gallery or somebody´s house - that´s an artist´s space or somebody who supports the arts in their private space. Those are the spaces that I´ve interacted with in Kenya, so they are already preset spaces. It´s not a public, open space, even though the art centers are open to the public and spaces like the Goethe Cultural Institute are located in the center of town and people can see what´s happening and come in - it´s still within the cube of the art world. So it´s in one way very safe - because it´s within that framework. I don´t know what it would be like outside of that framework, because I haven´t operated outside of that framework.
I think sometimes a lot of - like what I showcase isn't very commercial in a sense and is also material that is kind of provocative. So for example the use of underwear in Between us was like an easy way for me to enter into a tabooed material or tabooed things we don´t talk about. In Kenya you very often do not hang your women´s underwear out in public to dry. A lot of women will hang it in the bathroom, or if they hang it outside they cover it with a bed sheet or a towel or a cloth. And its not, especially if you´re living in an estate, where other people can see your laundry, an item that is talked about or shown in public. So the underwear was an easy entry point for me to getting people to talk about: What they think about underwear, what they knew about it, what they think a person who wears this kind of underwear is like. And to get into other discussions through the use of the underwear. It will also make people come in, because they were more curious - or the opposite in some senses, some people might go away, because it was too intimate or too aggressive for them.
I had a longer exhibition at the GoDown Arts Centre - which is where the installation is present and there is a live performance piece, there´s a video work and performance stills. But we also did workshops and the point was to get people to talk about things they normally would not discuss. And the underwear just opened a lot of channels for people to share their thoughts. I had a lot of younger men and teenaged boys. You know, saying, they have a chance to see all the underwear that they normally would not have access to. I had also another teenaged girl talk about the fact that she did not know that there were so many different types an now she knows. I had an older man, who had just in the morning seen his neighbor´s underwear and was very cross and then he came to the exhibition and he saw even now everywhere underwear as if they were following him and he then started questioning himself: why did he get to be so angry about seeing this, what does it mean, why are we so particular about a material that has not been in existence in our history in a very long time. So these questions, just to get people to have dialogues with each other or themselves
I think, just to reemphasize for me, I guess it´s just important to make work that creates an emotional response and perhaps gets people to think about things - either again or talk or reflect or negotiate themselves or each other. That´s it - and I think art does that very immediately, because it goes to the senses quicker.“
6) Who is the audience of your art, who do you want to reach?
„The receiver of my art is - i guess mostly the art market. It really depends on for example the location, of where you show your work - like I´ve mentioned earlier. If you show your work at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, it´s based in town and your audience may be different. If you plan your PR quite well it also becomes very different on who is there for the exhibitions: if you have a show at the National Museum, the audience is much larger and a lot of them are coming from a public school background. So it really depends, I think, for every body of work, that you show publicly, which target audience do you want to have and for me that target audience changes according to the work I´m producing and where I´m showing it. So there is a lot of different variables to who the audience is. I don´t think it´s that specific for me or in general.“
7) How does identity affect gender?
„I think it definitely affects it, but how I´m not so sure. I guess, for me my gender is my identity. My gender fuels a lot of my work. My experiences in the world have been driven through my gender. Not only that but that´s one of the main components.“
4. Conclusion. Miriam Syowia Kyambi and her art in the context of queer
As the artist already explained in the interview, she does not focus on queer art or topics or those that only affect the female body, respectively feminity. For her, using the female perspective in her art pieces is caused by her personal narration as an entry point and, referring to this, the fact that Miriam Syowia Kyambi is a woman. So she did not decide actively to cope with queerness or womanhood, but handles gender issues as well, as political problems or diverse social circumstances, that may affect sexuality in general. She therefore does not aim to spread a certain image of feminity or masculinity, nor a certain content or attitude towards this social topic. Her way of getting in touch with the audience is to encourage the viewer of her art to question the public opinion, for example, about underwear that is shown in public. Furthermore, the viewer shall be motivated to learn to distinguish between a "social decision" and a "private decision" towards a universal or one´s personal attitude respective underwear in public or other precarious topics. So all in all, the body serves as a trigger.5
In the end, everyone is left to one´s own identification with her art pieces and the intensity to deal with art and content. At its best, the viewer gets to think, talk or even discuss about it. The artist herself points out: „The viewer may not understand what a piece is about and that´s okay, or they may read the piece completely differently to what I had intended, but if you walk away without feeling anything then I think I failed.“6
1) http://www.syowiakyambi.com/bio.html (14.01.15)
3) http://www.artlabafrica.com/#!miriam-syowia-kyambi/c1d1x (14.01.15)
4) Kiruthh, Felix; Wangari Musalia, Martha and Jalang´o-Ndeda, Mildred (2013): "The Struggle for sexual rights among the Kikuyu women of central Kenya ,1918-2002", in: Falola, Toyin and Akua Amponsa, Nana (Eds.), Women, gender, and sexualities in Africa, Durham, p. 132.
5) http://www.artlabafrica.com/#!miriam-syowia-kyambi/c1d1x (14.01.15)