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Art

Conceptual art takes on questions of trauma and identity

Naitiemu and Ijakaa with their photos
Naitiemu and Ijakaa with their photos. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

To the untutored eye, the works currently up at The Attic Art Space might be mistaken for merely a series of blurred (but slightly provocative) photographs and another series of black slaps of paint, charcoal, pencil and pastel drawn in singular straight vertical lines on ordinary A4-sized paper.

At the discovery of the show being entitled ‘Identity’ and the artists exhibiting being Lemek Tompoika and the team of Naitiemu Nyampom and Nelson Ijakaa, one should be inclined to look a bit deeper to discover what’s actually going on with these two series of works.

If one has attended any of the previous exhibitions at The Attic, you can appreciate that the art space’s curator, Willem Kevenaar has a taste for conceptual art. That is to say, art that is less concerned with presenting pretty pictures and more to do with projecting powerful emotional content.

“I tend to like artworks that reflect a sense of struggle,” says Willem as he tried to explain why he prefers art that takes on topics that might disturb, be seen as emotionally dark or depressing. But invariably, those images are often deeply personal and reflective of artists’ inner-most thoughts.

That is certainly the case with both series in The Attic’s ‘Identity’ show.

For instance, Naitiemu and Ijakaa’s images address issues of mental health, including trauma, anguish and the instability of mind that can derive from personal experiences that affect one negatively.

In other words, the images are intentionally blurred to reflect the sort of psychological confusion normally associated with mental illness. The images are “personal” for both of them, although Naitiemu admits she was more traumatized by the passing of her father. That is partly why Ijakaa is the photographer striving to create special effects with his camera and Naitiemu is his subject.

Lemek with his conceptual painting in 'Identity'show at The Attic

Lemek with his conceptual painting in 'Identity'show at The Attic. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Yet both were very close to their fathers, and both were affected by their deaths. Yet Ijakaa admits that his father only passed last year and he hasn’t been quite as affected by his death and she has been.

“That instability has meant that I could be happy at one moment, angry in the next and sad soon after that,” says Naitiemu, explaining how one group of color images show her expressing all of those emotions.

But as intriguing as their still photos are, especially with their subtle blend of blur and elusive color, it is their short video at the entrance of The Attic that most clearly reveals what the couple are trying to do.

Starting with a silhouetted Niatiemu in the nude, one watches her struggle to cover herself in a diaphanous white cloth. Once she manages to drape herself fully, she moves gracefully but one also can feel her being constrained by the fabric, and struggling to escape.

Amazingly, Lemek Tompoika’s black lines also bear a secret truth that can only be deciphered if one appreciates that he too has a mental challenge. Only his is less about trauma and more about identity since his background is Maasai. Yet he’s a thoroughly urbanized, Western-educated Kenyan male who struggles over questions of culture.

Ijakaa's image of mental instability

Ijakaa's image of mental instability. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

So if one looks more closely at the thick black lines in his paintings, one will see they are by no means identical. Instead, each is meant to symbolize a sort of male ‘fashion statement’ with fashion also symbolizing one aspect of identity.

Shaped with multi-layers of pen and ink, pastel and charcoal, the first images in his series look specifically like a loose kaftan gown draped on a thin wire hanger. Yet gradually, with each iteration of the black line, the kaftan becomes less distinguishable, more abstract and the hanger disappears. The line is then left hanging in space, rather like the artist who still seems to feel un-grounded in either Maasai or urban Western culture. It’s a theme he’s addressed in previous exhibitions that he’s had at Kobo Gallery and Kuona Artists Collective.

It’s apparently coincidental that both Lemek and Naitiemu are Maasai by birth, and both concerned as artists with issues of mental focus, be it related to culture, personal trauma or identity.

In this regard, art serves them both as a means of articulating their challenges and bringing them out into a realm where solutions may be found. In this way, art seems to serve as a sort of therapeutic tool, not as a panacea but as a mental palette with which to find balance and a healing resolve.

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