When sex and nudity are on public display, they are likely to arouse strong sentiments, either focused interest or fervent outrage.
The subjects of sex and nudity become even more troubling or tantalising when they’re framed in the field of fine art.
Artists like Michael Soi, Patrick Mukabi and John Kamicha all have been challenged for daring to address such themes in their art.
Whether the artists taking part in the current group show at Goethe Institute receive insults or applause for their feminist artistry, only time will tell.
But from the outpouring of appreciation that they received at the opening last Wednesday night, the show, entitled ‘Remote’, already looks like it is a watershed of an exhibition.
It is only the show’s title, ‘Remote’, that seems curious since the art of both Maral Bolouri and Asteria Malinzi are all about intimacy, immediacy and outspoken truth-telling.
Jackie Karuti’s imaginative and whimsical video might work, given ‘The Planets Chapter 32’ takes us into the far (‘remote’) reaches of the universe. The trip is powered by the artist’s curiosity and the paper kite cum rocket ship that fancifully flies her into outer space.
Only the ‘Troglodyte’ images of Joshua Obaga reflect the sort of alienation, isolation and frustration that yearns to break out of those feelings and re-connect with the living.
But if the title is curious, the concept that curator Zihan Herr has sought to explore is challenging and deep. She wanted her fellow artists to explore concepts associated with dismantling ‘social constructs,’ be they limiting social stereotypes or false historical narratives.
Both Maral and Asteria took up the challenge and defiantly employed their artistic methods to dispense with outmoded, inaccurate and dehumanising social constructs.
In Maral’s case, her multimedia installation draws upon the same research into African proverbs that fuelled her award-winning ‘L’Atelier’ piece entitled ‘Mothers and Others’.
The installation comes in four parts. First, there’s a white open box which seems to serve as a trash bin since it’s filled with paper scraps with ugly anti-woman stereotypes written on them. Terms like ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘loose’ all were implied in the traditional proverbs; but these are dispensed with by the artist. (nothing more than garbage to the artist).
Going further, Maral boldly draws a black and white set of nine almond-shaped figures. They’re delicately drawn and anatomically, they look exactly like ladies’ primary sexual organ, the clitoris.
She also creates the organ in clay which she has painted white, as if to underscore its importance to women’s sexual identity and pleasure.
Maral creates one last set of images, one with the organ in the centre, one a sharply pointed hook apparently representing the sharp pain that women feel when violated sexually, and one knotted noose sliced open, perhaps a symbol of freedom.
Her art is incredibly powerful as she seems to be declaring both women’s defiance of the stereotypes and her uninhibited and bold gender identity which transcends the old and starts afresh to develop new identities and art.
Finally, Asteria’s main medium is photography which she uses to deconstruct the old narrative about slavery and the horror of Africans’ middle passage into dehumanising servitude.
That historical narrative is normally either sanitised or ignored entirely. But Asteria aims to both set the narrative straight and expose the cruelty inflicted on African women. She does so both with a written text and a beautiful full-bodied portrait of a woman. The woman is nude, apparently representing African women’s stark situation both during the Middle Passage and on the slave auction block.
Coincidentally, the nude is also the artist who stands without shame, much as African women had to stand while being dehumanised and treated like objects and animals up for sale.
There’s nothing pornographic about the nude. Neither is there any disfiguration to detract from the beauty of this body.
One cannot predict how long it will be before fundamentalists come to Goethe and protest either the nude who stands near the entrance to the show, or the flagrant display of not just one but ten unmistakably images of women’s ultra-sensitive sexual organ.
The subtle symbolism of Zihan’s show may be lost to those who only look superficially at the art. Its meaning may remain ‘remote’ to general audiences. But it’s also provocative and bound to rouse curiosity and whatever else.
The artworks range from Sh35,000 to Sh100,000.