Pertinent Perspective: Joy Maringa makes a shamelessly proud nipple statement

Joy Maringa's brass sculpted nipples during her first solo exhibition at Kobo Gallery on April 25, 2024.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Bedecked with a full head of forest green hair and complimented by bright-eyed green lashes, pencil-thin eyeliner, and green eye shadow, Joy Maringa presents the embodiment of cutting-edge contemporary culture, beauty, and art.

It would seem she doesn’t see herself as a spectacle, especially as other young women in Nairobi are changing their hair colour every month.

“During my days working exclusively as a makeup artist, I came to appreciate it as a form of visual art,” she tells the BD Life.” Indeed, just like a professional painter, she worked with palettes filled with colour. She worked and still works with an array of brushes, only on a smaller scale.

Her transition from makeup artist to full-time professional painter who is also working as a sculptor in her current showcase at Kobo Gallery came gradually. But from the look of her first solo exhibition which she entitled Pertinent Perspective, she is definitely entitled to claim the title of full-time professional visual artist.

“Actually, I consider myself both a makeup and a visual artist since I’m still being called to do people’s makeup and I love doing it for them. It’s fun,” she adds.

So is ‘Pertinent perspectives’ which could be seen as a jab at another perspective called ‘the male gaze.”

As you walk into Kobo’s vast gallery space, the show gives no hint of being even slightly subversive. One sees a long row of large square-shaped paintings, each covered in a single colour, be it green, yellow, brown or black. Then on top of the color are affixed rows and rows of brown-colored mini-sculptures.

Then, she’s got several stands with assorted boxes on top of them. We gravitate towards one stand that has an open box looking like the kind filled with overpriced European dark chocolates. It is clearly meant to look that way. But the ‘chocolates’ are tiny duplicated sculptures shaped like what? I ask the artist.

“They are shaped like large nipples, the ones at the tip of women’s breasts,” Joy explains.

Before she can reveal where her fascination with women’s nipples comes from, we head over to one of her large square paintings. We want to know why the uniformity of shape in them. “I like order in my things, and always have,” she says.

Joy Maringa has been a make-up artist for a while.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

But here again, as in the “chocolate box”, she has uniformly aligned mini-sculptures which she had cast not in brass as she had hoped to do, but in a mix of dental stone powder.

“I created two molds since women’s breasts are never exactly alike. Neither are their nipples,” she says, speaking as if she’s an expert in the study of women’s nipples. It turns out, she is.

“Supposedly, women’s nipples (not their breasts) are not to be shown in public. And if they are, women are meant to feel shame,” she adds. She notes that in traditional African society, there was no shame in showing women’s breasts. But now, it's taboo. The nipple has become a sexual turn-on for Westernised men, she says. It’s a function of modernity, male dominance in Western culture, and the ‘male gaze’ that Joy is challenging. It’s as if she is putting all those nipples out there on canvas, in chocolate boxes, and even in her colourful make-up palette to make a proud statement about the beauty of ladies’ nipples.

Shameless about her own big nipples now, Joy admits she grew up feeling ashamed of hers. Men used to abuse her publicly or laugh sarcastically as if she was a deformed misfit.

Now is her time to fight back in the only way she knows how with her art.

The show itself doesn’t feel vengeful or erotic even though she says men apparently have been programmed in these times to get excited when they see women or girls with shapely breasts. Yet even I can recall when African men were respectful of women’s breasts. They said breasts were for babies to suckle, not for men to paw.

Treading on uncharted territory, one can’t remember a time in art history when women’s nipples were details highlighted by art historians. Women’s breasts were featured in many classical paintings, although not without controversy.

As an increasing number of Kenyan women come out and make radical statements with their art, the male gaze will gradually lose its power to dominate how women see themselves. It’s already begun as more women artists, like Joy, have a ‘pertinent perspective’ that is not at war with men. It’s simply illustrating their own artistic empowerment, and it’s about time.

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