‘Me, Myself and I’ is the title Naitieum Nyanjom shamelessly gave to her first solo exhibition held this July at the British Institute of Eastern Africa.
It’s a show that reflects the complexity of this Kenyan woman who, at 24, isn’t just a visual artist as her ‘artist statement’ suggests. She’s also an academic who just completed a five-year Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from University of Nairobi.
But Naitiemu is also a woman with sufficient humility not to talk much about her years at university where she often studied till the wee hours to retain the same perfect scores that she’d consistently received in secondary school.
“I’ve always loved doing art whenever I had the chance,” says Naitiemu who started apprenticing with acclaimed Kenyan artist and mentor Patrick Mukabi while she was still at university.
In fact, she virtually did a ‘double major’ since she was simultaneously active with studies on campus and at Mukabi’s Dust Depo Art Studio. And in both spheres, she excelled. She even managed to take part in various group exhibitions: from Alliance Francaise, Circle Art Gallery and the Kenya Art Fair to the UN Recreation Centre, Delta House and Abuja, Nigeria.
Naitiemu says she was fortunate to study art and design in secondary school. But her time with Mukabi at Dust Depo is what enabled her to strength her skills in painting, woodcut printing, photography, image transferring, mixed media and collage.
All of these techniques were apparent in her first solo show. Image transferring was especially visible in her two black and white ‘Self Portraits’. Each conveyed contrasting emotions. One showed the same image of her face, repeated across the large canvas and looking sober and subdued. The other set of cross-canvas images were also of the artist’s face, only this time filled with joy.
And on both canvases, she’d written words suggesting thoughts correlative with her expression. On one she wrote lines like “I am not who you think I am” and ‘You don’t know me’. On the other she wrote positively that ‘I have never been sad’.
This pattern of pairing her paintings in a dialectical style is particularly apparent in her twin sleek-shaped divers. Both works are entitled ‘7.6 million in people in the world: I am woman’ I and II.
But one wore a crown of thorns while the other a crown of regal triumphant. Both women were carefully delineated against a bright yellow backdrop which was filled with image-transferred antithetical headlines.
The lines glaring out of the thorn-crowned diver’s work were all about women’s oppression, making reference to everything from gender inequality and domestic violence to sexual harassment and how the world has failed to educate girls. Ironically, she seemed to be swimming upward as if resisting the downward drag.
But then juxtaposed to all that apparent negativity is the regally crowned woman affirming ‘power’ and ‘freedom’.
These two collage-like paintings seemed to reveal the artist recognition of both the obstacles and opportunities that women currently face.
Yet one wall of the show was filled with murky works whose titles gave greater clarity to her message than the works did themselves. Filled with questions about the meaning of life, death, fate and free will, she nonetheless remains open to fearlessly question further.
The works on one wall in her show that doesn’t treat her paired paintings in dialectical style were entitled “A shadow of his silhouette: An abyss of Nostalgia.” Naitiemu was clearly close to this man. The silhouette is of her father whose passing is still fresh in her heart and mind.
“My mother gave me the name Niatiemu, which is Maasai for ‘One who satisfies.’ That was because my father was so exciting about my being born that he threw a celebration in which everyone feasted and went home satisfied,” said the artist who once had an English name to which she no longer relates.
So just as it was her choice to claim her family name, Naitiemu also made the choice to be herself. And for her that self is sincerely an artist first and foremost. She may have the scientific skills and the academic background to do other things. But ‘Me, Myself and I’ was the measure of a major breakthrough for Naitiemu. And while she’s deeply grateful to Mukabi and for her years at Dust Depo, she’s recently moved out and now works from her studio at home.