‘How Africans view women’

Kenyan artist Maral Bolouri with her award winning installation entitled 'Mothers and Others'. PHOTO | COURTESY
Kenyan artist Maral Bolouri with her award winning installation entitled 'Mothers and Others'. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Maral Bolouri is a Kenya-based visual artist exploring issues of gender and identity in art. That is how she arrived at creating her award-winning ‘Mother and Others’.

Her installation focused on women’s portrayal in African proverbs won first prize at ABSA-Barclays’ ‘L’Atelier’ 2017.

Maral studied painting at the Art University of Tehran and earned a Master’s degree in International Contemporary Art & Design Practice from Malaysia. She has exhibited her art in Iran, USA, Belgium, South Africa and Malaysia.

Her studio is at Kuona Trust. Her ‘L’Atelier’ award includes a six-month residency in Paris plus a substantial cash prize. She spoke to MARGARETTA WA GACHERU


Has your life always been in art?

I drew when I was a child, but of course every child draws if you give them art supplies. I made my mind to study art when I was 17. I did my degree in painting but right after I graduated I stopped practising for two to three years then continued when I started doing my Master’s degree.

What inspired you when doing the artwork that won at the 2017 L’Atelier award?

I was inspired by the status and treatment of women in Kenya. Kenyan women contribute to its culture and economy, but they are often side-lined by the patriarchal system which is constantly reinforced through oral traditions. I chose proverbs as the contextual framework because I believe they are still used to put women down.

How did you decide to design the art installation as you did?

It took a year and a half from the time I started doing research on proverbs until I finalised the structure. The final installation is the result of continued sketching and discussions with my husband Mwini Mutuku, Craig Halidy my research partner and Margarita Raysberg my consultant.

What materials did you use?

The installation is made of wood and iron cowbells.

What is your style? Is it more than one?

As a visual artist I tend not to limit or define myself with medium or a particular mode of expression. I am interested in stories and issues that I find worthy of discussion.

You researched African proverbs and how those adages portray women. How many countries’ proverbs did you examine?
Craig and I reviewed a body of literature focused on proverbs, mainly African proverbs about women. Amongst them, there were proverbs from Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia.

From your research, who is an African woman?

As Margarita Raysberg puts it, the proverbs overwhelmingly portray women as helpless imbeciles except for when the sayings espouse women’s reproductive potential as mothers.

Did the research and the art that has emerged from it impact you personally?

I think every project I have done so far as an artist has helped me grow in one way or another. Through in this project, I had the privilege of working with artists and academics who contributed to the realisation of the work.

What does winning first prize at this year’s L’Atelier mean to you?

I am proud to have brought it home to Kenya. Winning this award is one of a kind opportunity for any artist to further develop their artistic practice.

From the research, you found very few positive proverbs and what were they? You placed inside what was called an ‘altar’ or shrine? Why did you put them there?

The positive proverbs are not a few, although in comparison to the general proverbs, they stand as a small portion. The ‘altar’ is a metaphor for motherhood. The piece explores why women are only valued as human beings when they reproduce.

If you were to have a drink with two artists, local or foreign, who would they be?

Tracy Emin and Shirin Neshat.

The idea of making a living from art for most Kenyans is still distant. Most parents want their children to study engineering, medicine or law. What would tell them?

I would say please, watch all six episodes of “We must free our imaginations” by Binyavanga Wainaina on YouTube. Binyavanga says: ‘‘I want this generation of young parents to have their kids see Africans writing their own stories, painting their own stories…’’

When we speak of art we usually talk about the mere act of production, but art begins way beyond that. Art begins with imagination, creativity and autonomy. If we do not educate creativity out of our future generation, if we are not scared of trying new things, we will allow every individual to flourish, then it does not really matter if you are a lawyer, a designer or a craftsman.

African art is hot right now, but are Kenyan artists positioning themselves to make big money from the growing global demand?

I understand that everybody is interested in knowing how much money Kenyan art is making. Although I don’t think that should be our focus. Kenyan art is definitely growing and this growth is possible through the hard work of the artists, galleries, curators and art institutes.

In order to better position ourselves in the global market, we will need more art spaces, more educational workshops and hopefully one glorious day, a Kenyan Art University and Museum of Contemporary Art. It is time for us to form new collectives, learn more about professional practice and present ourselves with the global standards that we deserve.