Q: How did you get involved with Toghal and in this project?
A: Dayo (the co-founder of Toghal) and I connected on Twitter and she came to see my work at an Open Studio. She has now attended quite a lot of shows I’ve done since then. I’ve known Ifeanyi for a while now too, we were introduced via one of my shows and we roam in some similar Afropolitany art circles, so when Dayo commissioned me to make a design for this Toghal/Ifeanyi collaboration, it seemed like a lovely project and an opportunity to engage in something slightly removed from my studio practice.
Q: How did you go about interpreting the brief for the project?
A: I am working on a largescale interactive installation at the moment involving an army of handdrawn animated women – a salute to women who have used their bodies in protest when they haven’t been permitted to use their voices – entitled “Mutumia”. This means “woman” in Gikuyu; some say that it translates more directly as – the one whose lips are sealed” although the etymology is contested. While working on it, I read a brilliant essay entitled “The Khanga is Present” by the Kenyan writer and filmmaker Ndinda Kioko about the khanga cloth that has adorned generations of East African women’s bodies, how the characteristic slogans, poetry, and messages on these khangas have been used to communicate women’s feelings, stories, and histories, and how the khanga should be documented more formally in the retelling of our histories, which are usually written up by men.
So while I’m disseminating ideas brought up in Ndinda’s essay into my studio work, Dayo gets in touch with this project, and serendipitously asks me to consider designing my own version of a khanga. She had seen some images of “The Matter of Memory”, an immersive piece which drew upon my parents’ childhood memories of home as a way of intimately exploring Kenya’s colonial past. In the multimedia installation, I recreated my grandmother’s colonial living room, and permeated the fabric of it with narratives rendered in animation, projection, sound, sculpture, drawing, mural, and gathered objects. The wallpaper, which was Dayo’s initial reference when we started talking about me making this work for Toghal, from a distance looked flowery and archaic, but when you looked closer, it was an interconnected web of handdrawn human bodies and DNA structures.
With all this in mind, I wanted to have fun with the brief. I wanted to celebrate women. I wanted to celebrate the khanga. I wanted to use it to communicate something. I found myself reverting to a black and white, stylised silhouette language I used to visually speak in years ago, in art school days, when I was obsessed with boobs and penises and sex and death and used to carve figurative shadow narratives into adhesive vinyl on walls. I began to play, drawing loads of these women’s bodies, and beads, and adornments. That’s basically what the design is.
Q: Kenyan poet Ndinda Kioko was the source for the text on the fabric/cushions – why this particular choice of text?
“She writes to the world, teaching it to see her the way she deserves to be seen. She tells us to talk back.”
“Contest social norms. Express yourself. Clap back. Be heard. Love. Laugh. Pray. Return a gaze to the world.”
A: The slogan on a khanga is arguably the most important part of it; it’s what makes a khanga a khanga and not just a patterned cloth. So it was important to me that I chose the words carefully. And because I was obsessed with Ndinda’s writing at the time, and the Khanga essay in particular, and because I was feeling all the collaborative spirit feels, I wanted to extract something out of her words, to honour them, to honour her, to communicate with her, and insodoing, to communicate with other women through this khanga design. So I chose some of my favourite of all her words, the most celebratory, universal, empowering ones, and she generously let me use them.
Q: The overall exhibition title 1:54 relates to the 54 countries in Africa. Do you think calling something “African” is helpful? What does it mean? Especially if we have, as you observe “global, fragmented narratives”?
A: A certain type of “Africa” is currently “trendy” in the art world, that’s undeniable. But what does it mean exactly? And where do I fit into it? I am from a fragmented background. In the context of 1:54, can I really claim my “Kenyan-ness”? I think about this a lot, and my thoughts do shift on it. I grew up with a lot of freedom regarding my identity so I may have rejected categorised opportunities like this when I was younger as I wouldn’t have seen a perfect fit. I think it might be simplistic and naïve though to assume you can resist the categories you are placed into. Until we topple the dominant narratives that exist, we will continue to be categorised, whether we want to be or not. However I insist on not being “bound” by any one category. If you are going to place me in a box, place me in as many boxes as I fit into. I am African, yes. I am female, yes. I’m black, brown, British, diasporic. I’m a drawer, a draftswoman. I animate. I use technology. I tell stories. I tell fragmented stories. I write. I make films, on occasion. Let’s have all these conversations, simultaneously. I still wonder a lot where I belong, my work is grounded in this wandering, but I’m here for all the conversations now. The more, the better.
Q: When do you know a piece of work is finished?
A: I think I’m only finished when I take it out of my studio and the first person who isn’t me interacts with it. So many (and some of the most important) decisions happen during the install. It’s about being inside the shared physicality of the space, and about the adrenaline of the anticipated conversation. The (physical) work is finished when the conversation begins.
Phoebe Boswell was interviewed by Robin Cuthbertson.