Jess Atieno’s solo exhibition at Red Hill Gallery turned into a magnificent multimedia phenomenon last month when she was joined by contemporary dancers and marvellous musicians, including James Mweu and Michel Ongaro.
The inclusion of contemporary dancers accompanied by Ongaro, a musician as Kenya’s brilliant version of Stevie Wonder was the idea of Red Hill gallerists Hellmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch.
“Remember, we have had [contemporary] dancers perform at previous exhibition openings,” Erica reminds the BDLife.
It had worked well before, as when Liza MacKay included a performance by another contemporary dancer at the opening of her solo exhibition at Red Hill last year.
But the inclusion of Ongaro on percussion and guitar together with flutist Oneko Arika seemed even more fitting and relevant to the theme of Jess’ exhibition/solo show.
‘The Moon has gone under the sea’ is the title of Jess’s ‘audacious’ exhibition, one which may bring to mind more questions than answers when one pays attention to what she has done to create her paintings.
One can’t even be sure ‘painting’ is the pertinent term to describe what she has done to create what she describes as a collage.
For even more than collage, Jess’s images involve multiple techniques, methods, archival materials, and perhaps more importantly, research.
The images that she presented on canvas at Red Hill are all part of a larger conceptual art project that aims to examine archival imagery representing Africans as seen from a colonial point of view.
But more than that, she aims to challenge the narratives that tend to derive from these biased images and eventually change the narratives that diminish and undermine the dignity of African people.
One of those biases is the denial that Africans had a history before colonialism came to bring them out of their primitive incivility.
That is why, until quite recently, most African art could only be found in ethnographic museums, not art institutes, since supposedly Africans never produced art.
During an ‘Artist Talk’ given at her opening (just a few hours before her return flight back to the US where she is currently lecturing at the Art Institute School of Chicago), Jess described how her research in open archives found some relevant images.
But she eventually found a French man online who was selling postcards featuring the sort of colonial images she was looking for.
“The postcards that I worked with represented images of Kenyans and Ugandans,” she explained.
But the images featured in the collection at Red Hill have been disrupted by her reconstruction. Her methods involved in that reconstruction process are fascinating and complex.
For instance, one of her paintings entitled ‘A Song to the Silent Sisters’, began as an old photograph of several African girls seated together but half naked from the waist up.
To negate the biased perspective of the sexualised African female body, Jess removed the naked breasts and replaced them with lovely floral imagery.
And in ‘Song in a Foreign Land’, she features as the only European in the show. She is a nun represented at the top of a cluster of African children.
The placement of the characters is pyramidal while Jess’s use of a fire-engine red colour suggests something violent is going on. But then, one can decide for himself.
And as Jess took pains to find out the nationality of the people in the postcards, she was also able to identify the places where some of the images represent.
In her most precious work (at Sh800,000), the ‘Sultan’ may be so highly valued by the artist because the Sultan looks like one of the few images among her postcards that represents a man respected for his power and wealth, a man of the Omani Arabs who ruled over the Coastal region in pre-colonial times.
But even he got a cultural makeover from Jess, highlighting the elements of music and beauty.
So one can see why Hellmuth and Erica felt inspired to invite the dancers who in turn brought first-class musicians with them.
When we first met Jess in 2015, it was when she had her first solo show at Kuona Trust entitled ‘Full-Frontal’ featuring nude women of all shapes and sizes, some with bulges and giant bottoms, others skinny and wrinkled.
It was my first encounter with this ‘audacious’ and fearless woman who has evolved and travelled far since then. But she’s still audacious, still interrogating issues that deserve our attention.