Maliza Kiasuwa is a Kenya-based artist who creates sculptures reminiscent of the totems that ancient peoples used to worship for their sacred, protective powers.
Combining organic with ordinary everyday materials, her totems reflect her concern for both memory and the here and now. They also reaffirm her keen affinity for nature similarly expressed in her previous exhibition where she only created art out of organic materials.
Those are still crafted into her current works, only with a slight difference. Now they are elaborated with a wider range of mixed media, and then blended into the show currently up at Nairobi’s Circle Art Gallery entitled ‘Lucid Dreams.’
Maliza and the other five artists in the Circle show, namely Agnes Waruguru Njoroge, Lemek Tompoika, Onyis Martin, Prina Shah and Sidney Mang’ong’o all are apparently clear or ‘lucid’ about what their art is meant to signify.
Yet Maliza’s ‘dreams’ have a somewhat different lucidity from the rest. Her dreams embrace a vision that includes the past, present and future. They are also symbolised in objects, colours, textures and malleable forms which are hand-woven, stitched and occasionally wrapped.
“I call my works in this show ‘Today is Yesterday’ because I am aware that, not only nature but most ordinary objects we use every day have a history of their own,” Maliza says.
“In Africa, that [colonial] history has often been bloody, which is why you see red cotton thread in the work,” she adds.
In her previous exhibition, she created art using only organic materials out of respect for the environment and to send a message that there is an urgent need to restore a respect for nature in its purest, most unpolluted form.
“Now I have added several new materials,” the artist says, noting her use of rubber also represents an organic material since it came from rubber trees which were grown extensively in the Congo, a land she has family connections to.
“Africans were exploited to extract the gluey base from the rubber trees. And when they didn’t work fast enough for the coloniser or didn’t produce their quota of rubber glue, they had their hand chopped off as a sign to other workers: they had better do as they were told or they would lose their hands too,” she adds, reflecting on that painful past.
Having a background that is both African and European, Maliza admits that memory plays a meaningful role in her art.
“Pre-colonial Africa is said to have practised ‘animist’ religions which meant they worshipped both animals and nature, often in the form of totems.” The term ‘animist’ was previously used to convey something derogatory, uncivilised and definitely not Christian.
But Maliza says there should be no shame associated with the worship and preservation of nature.
“It certainly was better than the way human beings are treating nature today.”
Thus, all of her pieces contain organic materials like the raffia grass (to symbolise celebration), wool, natural cotton and gold thread (the gold being one more raw material that Africans were used to extract) and porcupine needles (for protection’s sake).
But in this show, she combines the organic with everyday items like the rubber (which today is blended with other chemicals), used (both then and now) for making wheels for bikes, cars, planes or other moving containers.
But Maliza understands how rubber can also be a poisonous pollutant when burnt by scavengers out to collect the scrap metal contained inside the rubber tires.
This is where we now see recycling coming into her lucid vision. All the rubber in her work is second-hand, given new life in her art.
Surprisingly, she also makes use of the soft plastic fabric known as polyethylene in her recent works. This seems antithetical to her previous appreciation of all things organic instead of plastic and synthetic.
She admits it is in one sense, but now she’s examining ways that commonplace items can be recycled as art rather than left as raw pollutants to damage the environment.
That form of meshed plastic is used commonly for making bags that hold fruits and vegetables in bulk. They also become the debris that living creatures like birds get snagged in while others eat it and die.
Either way, the bags are killers. But by recycling them, Maliza becomes more of a realist, even an environmentalist who understands we won’t have a future unless we deal creatively with the present that we have.