In part 1 of this two part series Alexander Ikawah takes us through campaign music and what it says about us, who we are and where we are. Look out for part 2 next week.
Each political season campaign trucks drive around town blaring music as frenzied youth dressed in campaign merchandise dance in, on, and around them. You might imagine that the choice of what music to play is critical. Inevitably, some songs rise to the top of the pile and come to embody the message of one or the other side of the campaign. In the period preceding the 07/08 election, the song that had come to occupy that spot for the opposition was an ohangla hit called ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ by Onyi Papa Jey. It is a magnificent song. Magunga Williams captures it thus:
“His song “Raila-ODM” did not become a favourite simply because Raila Odinga was currently the heartthrob of the nation, most favoured to win the 2007 election and highly likely to become the 4th Commander-in-Chief of the Kenyan forces. No. Well, maybe in a small part this was also a factor. But to give credit where it is due, this was not just a song. This was a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream that Luos had longed for, for nearly 40 years. A presidency.”
And indeed the song is epic in scope, covering a multitude of Raila’s achievements but particularly the struggle for constitutional reform embodied by the orange movement. It attempts to rally all the coalition’s allies and acknowledge their support. It urges calm in Kisumu(Beduru mos) and features a soccer game in which Jakom scores the winning goal.
This year, the airwaves are ruled by Onyi Jalamo’s ‘Tibim’ a song you have probably heard. I intend to discuss it because it is the most popular, however, there is another song perhaps more deserving of the limelight that I shall discuss too. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ by Amos Barasa. The former appeared on youtube as a grainy video that quickly became viral. As of now, two versions of the original have a total of about a million views. It is the noisiest tune on the streets at every NASA event, the campaign song by popular demand. The latter is a more musically and lyrically complex traditional song by Amos Barasa that made its debut early this year. The most popular youtube version had a modest 271,206 views by the time I was writing this article but I intend to discuss it as well because it is, by my judgement, the best composed of the lot this year and the closest in scope and emotion to Onyi Papa Jey’s classic.
I also wish to discuss something else, the disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. These campaign songs are undeniably crucial to the political process and yet they operate in some lesser media space, occupying the airwaves of local radio stations and emerging to seemingly surprise the national media who then do inadequate and token analysis of their meaning and significance, confident that after the season, they shall be irrelevant once again. A cursory understanding of the music scene suggests that these musicians are largely invisible to the media in the period between elections and then if their song becomes a hit, suddenly become news. And the media often neglects to do its due diligence in covering and discussing their role and impact. It is as though there is a caste system in the music world and the election season presents the only chance for a certain group of musicians to achieve national relevance.
In a news story aired this April, Ouko Okusah declares that this season’s hit song ‘Tibim’ is, “one of the lousiest piece of music ever produced in this millennia.” He proceeds to denounce its lyrics as being empty and reeking of substandard creativity. In particular, he singles out the word ‘tibim’ whose meaning he does not explain. He declares the video pathetic as well. He is only half right about the video, but he is dead wrong about the quality of the song. He looks at the video but he does not see what it shows. He hears the music but its meaning is beyond him, so he assumes there is none. And he marvels at the ‘masses’ dancing to the song all over the country. Ouko Okusa is no stranger to ohangla, I am tempted to wonder what it might be that made him miss the meaning of this song, hiding in plain sight. And in this case, in plain lyrics. He ends his story with no insight into the song, and no reasons given for the insults levelled at another’s art. A professional attacks another professional’s work with no reasons given?
Okusa is not alone. Magunga went on to write this after we spoke,
“…every time Raila has offered himself for an election a theme song has to be composed. I cannot remember who sang what in 2013. It was that obscure. In 2017, Onyi Jalamo just gave us this useless arraignment of verse with no meaning whatsoever; a 7-minute waste of time that merely rides on a catchword, TIBIM, invented by former SONU Chairman, Babu Owino. NASA (the song, not the coalition) is, at best, a pile of fermenting garbage. That NASA (the coalition, this time) even chose it to be a campaign anthem is a tragedy. That jingle is so bad it can cause brain decay.”
I wish to shed some light on the song in question and perhaps in so doing, offer Ouko, Magunga, and any others like them a chance to come to a different conclusion about the song. A small service in literature.
Jalamo is singing about what he perceives as the country finally agreeing to unite behind Raila’s presidency. This is precisely the same thematic content that Onyi Papa Jey had tackled with the more acclaimed ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ from the 2007/8 political season. The mood of the song is celebratory. For those who remember Gor Mahia’s unbeaten streak in 2013. And the hashtag #Giniwasekao (we have already taken this thing), Jalamo’s song is in the same vein. A pre-celebration/encouragement message. It is rooted in the Luo culture of ‘pakruok’ –praise giving- to celebrate and encourage heroes, leaders, teams(e.g. sports), and I am sure in the past, armies. It is a cultural song, in the ohangla genre.
‘Tibim’ is not a nonsense word. It has onomatopoetic meaning. It describes the sound of something being struck. A point hitting home. A final blow. It evokes the emotion of triumph after struggle. A striker might be described as hitting the winning shot ‘Tibim!’ and subsequently scoring. Dholuo has words like that. Words with onomatopoetic meaning and Jalamo uses several in this song. ‘Tialala’ might describe the sound of a veil being torn. ‘Riaaa’ is an exhortation. You may shout ‘Riaaa!’ to your hunting dog to encourage it to catch the game you hunt. The bulk of the song is made up of lyrics that name a politician and request the replies ‘tibim’ and ‘tialala’ from participants.
Raila tibim. Tibim!
Wetangula tibim. Tibim!
Obado tialala. Tialala!
Perhaps Ouko does not know but these words had already found use in the political process well before Onyi Jalamo borrowed them to use in his song. They were already being used in campaigns all across Nyanza in precisely the way that Onyi uses them in his song. I was home in Migori for the party nominations and Obado was ‘tibim’ in the red corner, Ochilo was ‘tialala’ in the other. The people Ouko Okusa observes dancing know precisely what the words mean, however repetitive and mundane they sound to him. Onyi Jalamo’s song is deeply relevant to its ohangla audience and that is a mark in favour of its quality.
We often criticize contemporary music based on perceived moral content. Jalamo does not moralise. He does not pontificate. He does not beg you to vote for NASA. He simply celebrates a victory that he wishes to sing into existence. His lyrics are clean. He points out a few of Raila’s finer points.
‘Amolo Odinga, gik ma itimo dongo. Ikelo Democracy.’
Amolo Odinga you do great things. You have brought democracy.
To those who may accuse him of buttering Jakom’s behind, I ask you, are the lyrics untrue? Does Jakom not count among his contributions the very recent and hard-won struggle for a new constitution? Is that not a great thing? And is Onyi Jalamo not entitled to his interpretation of events?
The women leaders of NASA are celebrated equally. He devotes an entire verse to their praise, some names he mentions repeatedly.
Gladys Wanga. Tibim!
Amilo Gesagesa. Tibim!
Again the song scores. In comparison to most recent local hits, even crossing over to the side of gospel, such recognition and praise of women leaders is without comparison.
The song makes a point to be ethnically inclusive, mentioning leaders from all the different parts of the country that NASA has secured alliances within. All the NASA principals are Tibim. Joho is Tibim. Muthama is Tibim. This too is a point in the song’s favour.
It is not a posh composition by any means. One can discern from the sound that it was not produced on a large budget, but it did not need to be. This limited budget is perhaps what Okusa is noticing with the quality of the video. In fact, I do not fault Onyi for the original video quality. I pointed out that Okusa was half right about that because the cameraperson took really bad shots. Onyi Papa Jey’s classic was not the best shot of videos either. These political hits never are when they first appear. They are spontaneous, reactionary, expressions of a groundswell of emotion. The emotion Okusa fails to observe in the dancing masses shaking to NASA.
It is not a perfect song either. Not all of Tibim’s lyrics are happy and celebratory. There is a line, casually dropped but ominous where Jalamo sings, ‘ma kata kochuno to wadonjo gi balangewa’ – If needs must, we will climb in through the rafters.
It is a veiled threat. If Okusa wants something to fault the song on, this is what I would submit as a fault. At the NASA rally on Saturday, this rhetoric was reiterated by incensed politicians on the podium in front of a mammoth crowd and international media. I disagree with this threatening rhetoric. I wished for Onyi Papa Jey’s classic with its more level-headed ‘Beduru mos’ message but unfortunately, this is not his season. A more mature artist, he was wise enough to warn of violence without threatening it.
In the meantime, Jalamo has realized the potential of his song and there is a new Tibim video out with slightly better production quality and more Swahili lyrics than the original. Jalamo wants more Kenyans listening. I would suggest that Ouko revisit this artist and both versions of this piece of art and do another news feature about it except this time, to treat them with the professional courtesy they deserve. NASA(Tibim!) is probably the most nationally significant piece of music that will be recorded in Kenya this year.
Amos Barasa’s ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ is a humble giant of a song. It is composed with traditional instruments and features Barasa plucking on a litungu as a talented orutu/wandindi offers counterpoint for the lyrics all through and his band backs him up. It is not a big budget production either, but the video is creative and ambitious.
In an interview on K24, he explains the lyrics a little and it is clear that he did not intend it as a NASA hit. Music is alive however and even though it bore a more general message at composition, its meaning has evolved and its key lyric ‘Bindu bichenjanga’ –things change- has found application on the campaign trail and resonated with NASA supporters from Western.
This political season, the Western alliance seemed to present the hardest challenge for Jakom to secure. Seasoned and advanced politicians had to be brought into the fold. It was hard fought but eventually, it was achieved. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ hints at the feelings among the electorate in Western that might have motivated the region’s heavyweights to lay aside their own ambitions and back Jakom.
At last Saturday’s rally at Uhuru Park, it was the second most popular tune blasting from the campaign trucks and vans after Tibim. In the video, Barasa seems to track the story of the country, pointing out different things that have changed over time and offering them as evidence that change is inevitable. This desire for change, if the song reflects it correctly, is what consolidated the Western region behind Jakom. ‘Bindu Bichenjanga’ is to the people of Western and NASA what Onyi Papa Jey’s song was to Jakom and Nyanza. In Magunga’s words, “…a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream.” But whose dream?
WHOSE MUSIC, WHOSE DREAM?
Earlier, I had mentioned a disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. I like to refer to these groups as ‘the ground’ and ‘the elite.’ It appears to me that these two groups are as distinctly separated as conflicting tribes. It seems to me that these groups have different musical cultures. ‘The ground’ is rooted in cultural musics, languages, and identities that are often missing from the national mediasphere before election time. ‘The elite’ value and seek national and international identification and acceptance and consume music in ‘national’ or foreign languages such as English. NASA leadership, if they had been given a choice, would not have picked Jalamo’s Tibim song or even Bindu Bichenjaga. They had repeatedly chosen Helena Ken’s ‘Mambo Yabadilika’ for official events and rallies. The NASA principals were announced to this song. A song in Swahili, a national language. Ouko Okusah’s critique of Tibim’s quality is an elitist critique. The ground doesn’t care for video quality. They consume the music from the speakers of radios, whatsapp groups, and roadshow trucks. They choose songs that best represent the emotion they feel, and if that song is missing, they sing it.
Suzanna Owiyo composed her own NASA anthem, an attempt to achieve the same feat as Jalamo. She isn’t the only one. In the run-up to the vote, NASA anthems have proliferated online as musicians from all genres toss their hats into the ring. There is a Kamba NASA anthem, a ragga NASA anthem, a ghipuka NASA anthem, a Benga NASA anthem, a Kalenjin NASA anthem, and there will be more. None of them is produced with stellar quality, but all are popular and widely shared online. This art has not been solicited, it is happening on its own. These artists all see a ground ripe with listening fans and are eager to endear themselves by paying homage to the party. They are betting their futures on NASA and Jakom. Nothing like this is happening with music on the Jubilee side. This is significant.
It is also troubling. It hints at the lack of support and opportunities for independent artists in the country, especially those performing in local languages. It highlights the magnitude of the challenge that candidates who offer no cultural or populist affiliation face in the current political paradigm. And it also highlights a failure on the media’s part to adequately and consistently represent all in their coverage and programming. A debate about the place of local languages and cultural music in the national mediasphere is long overdue.
At Uhuru Park, everyone danced to these local language, cultural songs. Despite the differences in language, they seemed to be unifying factors, not divisive ones. Everyone shared the emotions these songs carry, in the hundreds of thousands. The feeling of being part of the same emotion with so many, it is powerful. It is powerful enough to sway votes and to change minds. Nothing is a better barometer of the sentiment on the ‘ground’ than the music that the ground is singing and dancing to. The IPSOS and SYNOVATE polls may have their numbers but in the musical polls, NASA is winning by a landslide. They say politics is fought and won at the grassroots, ‘the ground.’ I believe the musical polls are a far better barometer of the sentiment on the ground than any opinion poll. If you wish to know what the ground thinks of the presidential candidates as they head to the polls this week, just listen. You will hear Tibim! And Bindu bichenjaga.
Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. His work has been published in magazines Jalada, Kwani? and Lawino.
There is community everywhere. You have your social media community, work community, school community et cetera. And these communal areas have certain codes. Some rules are spoken, most are unspoken but generally people know what to do (which is, needless to say, also organized by all kinds of problems like race, class and gender). And so not knowing identifies one as an other. Perhaps this is why questions are such a violence. Questions call knowledge into question. The act of asking a question itself becomes a question. So a question like “Could I search your bag?” requires the response “You should know people.”
A form of power, then is the power to be assumed of knowledge. And to hold power with grace is often to allow yourself to be asked questions. To allow for questions. But because power is thought of as a place of knowledge there’s only so many times one can “not know” the answer to a question.
Given that there is a limit on the lack of knowledge then – it becomes easier to control the ways in which questions are asked. To control the questions is to control power. One way to control questions, of course, is fear. So if say, a dead businessman or maybe just a couple of bruised journalists will do the work of staving off unwanted questions – then that is what it takes.
And it makes sense, because a properly timed question can often do a lot of damage. A properly timed question with an audience more still.
This is why bodies end up being very important. And this is why the aesthetic is a heavy point of politic. How bodies present themselves gives history. This we know and we have touted around as career advice – dress for the position you want. How you present yourself determines how you are seen. But clothes are only one part of how your body presents itself. Hair, nails, skin, scars, fat, bones are all involved in this presentation. And when it comes to moulding oneself to a set standard just how far is liposuction from cutting nails? This is not a tirade against any form of grooming (which many who have met me would be convinced that I am deeply involved in). Rather to think about the ways in which we are recognized and ordered.
Because, as earlier said – to belong is a mixture of knowing and being known. Bodies that are known often need to be matched with their questions. Bodies that fail to match their questions are heavily pushed back to the place where they have achieved the right questions. “Why would you do that? You’re a man.” “But surely that’s not feminine at all, young lady!”
The thing is a body whose set of questions is known is manageable. It is now simple enough to figure out what spaces to put that body in, how to mould it. So it’s clear how, then, that carefree bodies are a problem – especially if you’re trying to run a form of authoritarian meritocracy. When questions start showing up from the wrong bodies – then they start showing up in the wrong spaces, they cease to be bodies.
They begin to gain personhood.
Suddenly it is not that simple to think of them as bodies. The process of questioning involves the ability to feel, analyse, understand the reasons behind that feeling and vocalizing. A rational path that is difficult to think of in abstract terms as bodies anymore. In asking, the act of asking itself – there is power. Questioning power becomes a question of power. Questioning power gives power to the questioner.
“We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
- Orwell, 1984
Which brings us back to questions being a violence.
Because only bodies that present themselves in certain ways are awarded the esteem of personhood from which questions must be asked then only certain bodies gather the power through questions. Of course, this becomes one of those self serving traps that can only be escaped by unimagining the cage. To see oneself through this lens is to find reasons not to ask questions “I am a man – I cannot be curious about this.” And it is in these ways that we chose our brands of ignorance. Not in the way that refuses to see the flip side of the knowledge we possess (which is still another way to pick a form of ignorance) – but in closing curiosities for abstract reasons.
But questions are not limited currency. And because all our cages are of our own design – there is always someone with the question that leads one down the path of unimagining their own cage.
But not everyone wants to be free – or rather not everyone has imagined freedom in the same way. And no one is ever really sure if they chose the right form of freedom. So in many ways, to ask the question is to shake at something that is yet to be fully formed – the violence. Especially when the source of the question itself is not open to question.
If knowledge is power (gadget boy said it so it must be true) and questions are the key to knowledge how do we give each other spaces if communal spaces do not condone questioning? If, instead, we continue to be controlled by respectability. If “don’t ask” continues to be the mantra? And, if community doesn’t give power to its members – then what’s the point?
This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Ed: Today we are running two essays. Both of these essays are from the same book and circle around insecurity. In reading these essays I’d like us too pay close attention to “othering” and how othering happens. In both these pieces, for different reasons, community fails as a security mechanism. When faced with our selves/ our privilege would we still hold ourselves to our principles? These are the questions demanded by intersectionality and, in many ways, these are the questions that these two short pieces ask.
by Nyambura Chege
My Uncle ‘Mucene’ (gossip) came to visit. He said he had news to tell us, so my father and I listened keenly while indulging in a cream tea. “I tell you, it’s been a long night for me and Mama watoto,” he started saying.
“Why, what happened?” my father, his brother-in-law, asked.
“Our neighbour’s house was burglarised, and I think some of them were beaten because all we could hear from our bedroom was Mama watoto screaming in pain.”
My father was astounded. “You did not go to help them?” “
Go where?! And expose ourselves voluntarily so that they can rob and beat us silly as well? Ah-no, be serious! No way. We waited quietly, and prayed for them…just hoping that the thugs would leave. It’s all we could do.”
“You think cowering away in your home while your neighbour was being terrorised is all-that-you-could-do for them, uncle Otieno?” I asked, incredulously.
Readjusting himself in his seat, he said, “You people just don’t want to understand what I’m saying, Nyambura.”
The matter was laid to rest.
Then two weeks later, my father got a call from Uncle Otieno in the middle of the night. He told me how their conversation went:
Uncle ‘Mucene’ was sobbing. “Peter! Please do something! They’re in the house asking us to come out!”
“What are you talking about? Who is in the house?”
“The thugs, they’re here! Please call for help. Please come and help us! We’re going to die!”
At this point, Uncle ‘Mucene’ was barely audible. “Otieno, call your neighbours! Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for you!” my father said, and terminated the call. It so happens that my Dad had relayed Uncle ‘Mucene’s’ philosophies to some of their shared friends, and they in turn had decided that he needed to be taught a lesson.
Security in our beloved Kenya has to begin from the grassroots. We have to change how we think and how we react to people being robbed, carjacked, kidnapped, raped, terrorised, and even murdered. Why don’t we start minding each other, it has to start somewhere, so why not there— mind each other. It is easier said than done, yes, but it is achievable.
Mind each other.
by Aisha Ali
The other day I was involved in a debate about street harassment when the man I was debating confidently proclaimed “Women get harassed on the streets because they allow it.”
This statement shut me up for a few seconds. As soon as I recovered, I inquired:
“What does this mean?”
“If women stood up against men who harass them, they wouldn’t harass them.”
“You do know that the average woman was no match to the average man, and standing up to men most of the time means physical violence. Women have even been killed.”
“If you believe in something, then you should be willing to face violence for it. Even if you have to die,” he said in a very matter-of-fact tone.
Since then, I have been thinking about the number of times I have been harassed by men simply for existing female. One day three men surrounded me in a bus at night, and harassed me to the point of tears in the presence of the bus conductor who didn’t do anything. Another, a man said hi to me and when I refused to respond, grabbed my arm and shook me, and followed this with insults.
It hit me that day that women are not human. When a person requires your death to believe that you are worthy of safety, you know that this person doesn’t consider you a human being who deserves to exist in a safe environment. Women are getting physically attacked by men who feel entitled to them. Women are being killed for not accommodating these men.
Yet this person could stand there and demand more harm towards women, more death of women, before he can admit that the problem is men. He would rather see women die, before he accepts that the fault of harassment of women lies firmly on men. Every time I leave the comfort of my home, I know that my body, my being female makes me a target. And that I am responsible for my own safety.
And I know that if anything were to happen to me, I’d be the one to blame. If I were to die, I’d be responsible for my own death.
The man I was talking to didn’t notice the shift in my body language. He didn’t notice me folding into myself a little, moving away from him. He didn’t notice me recognizing yet another man I can’t trust to keep me safe.
This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Editor’s note: this following piece was first published in 2011. Still, it continues.
On my way to work today, I had an epiphany. As I sat in one of the unending traffic jams that have become part of the daily ritual of trying to get to work, fuming as matatus “overlapped” the queue, it occurred to me that it wasn’t they who were the stupid ones.
The rule of law, whether we’re talking about the highway code, commercial law or criminal statutes, assumes a universal application. So, when I accept to religiously abide by it when others consider it only as a guideline, to be discarded whenever it is convenient to do so, then it is I who is refusing to see the reality as it truly is.
This notion was reinforced when I finally got to my office and read in the papers that Rift Valley MPs were planning to ditch the National Accord in a bid to replace Raila Odinga as the Prime Minister with William Ruto. According to The Standard, the plot is an attempt to shield Ruto from potentially facing charges at the International Criminal Court relating to the 2008 post-election violence. “If it means repealing the Accord, then we will act and move with speed to replace the PM, ,” the paper quotes the chairman of the Rift Valley Parliamentary Group, Dr. Julius Kones, as saying.
Putting aside for one minute the questionable wisdom of the move (after all, Omar al-Bashir’s position as President of Sudan didn’t save him from similar indictments), the statements simply emphasize the fact that there is one law for some and another for the rest. Just like the enlightened matatu drivers, our politicians believe that the rules do not apply to them and can be discarded whenever one of them gets into trouble.
Our whole system of governance aids and abets this logic. So when Cabinet Ministers are forced out of office after being caught with their hands in the till, the government creates a new taxonomy in which those who “step aside” are allowed to keep their fat salaries and allowances without actually having to work for them. That, they tell us, is how we will win the war on corruption!
I now believe that it is the ordinary, hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding Kenyan who is stupid. We agree to faithfully pay our taxes, even celebrating when the government exceeds its revenue collection targets, while those who actually pass our tax laws do not feel obliged to live under the same regime. We accept that the leaders of the same government supposed to ensure roads are properly built to cater for the booming numbers of vehicles and that traffic rules are obeyed, should not themselves be inconvenienced when they fail to do their jobs. We allow them to provide our children with a failing education system -at our expense, naturally- while they take their kids to private schools and elite universities in the West. We acquiesce when they tell us all is well with our public hospitals but they fly abroad at the slightest sign of illness.
We insist on believing that a new constitution will somehow magically apply the law to them. Our politicians, like our matatu drivers, are not Kenyans. Kenya is their creation, not ours. Its policies, rules and laws only apply to Kenyans, the wananchi (the people of the nation), not to the wenye nchi (those who own the nation). They are designed to perpetuate the power and wealth of the latter, to transfer resources and dignity from the former. It explains why none of our systems work, for the wenye nchi have no interest in us spending our money on ourselves. It is why no one goes to jail when they steal maize while a third of the country is starving, why no one is punished when people are sold contaminated food and when public funds go missing. It is the sole reason that the fate of 6 of them is of more import than the deaths of 1,500 Kenyans.
I, for one, am tired of this charade we call Kenya. I am tired of countless commissions that only produce paper; of a Parliament that only represents itself. I am tired of the cycle of prosecutions that produce no convictions and reforms that generate no change. I am tired of being poor and having to work hard to fund the excesses of a wealthy few. I am tired of carrying a leadership, a state, a country, that is nothing more than a parasitic infection.
I am tired of being a Kenyan.
In 2008, after being treated like crap for years, Inetta the Mood-Setter, a part-time DJ in the US, refused to take it anymore. Her parting words to the radio station, delivered live on air: “I QUIT THIS BITCH”
So do I.
Patrick Gathara is a cartoonist, writer, columnist on. Kenyan and International affairs. Follow him on twitter @gathara.
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are
– Anais Nin.
It was 1961 when Anais Nin gave us these words. ‘The Seduction of the Minotaur’ shows a strong sense of psychoanalysis. It talks about how Lillian studies herself and her actions “I don’t think about it, I just draw what I see,” says Michael Soi. This is the response he gives me when I ask him about the position of women in his art. The room both before and after the statement seems the same. Wine is flowing in direct correlation to the intensity of the hum of several conversations and he still stands before me with a slightly smug smile. However it feels like I am in a completely different room. As if the world has suddenly shifted, on its axis, a direction or two. I wonder what is this ‘not thinking about it’
I wonder about what worlds it makes possible.
More importantly, I wonder what kind of thinking ‘not thinking’ propagates.
We know, because it is easily knowable, that our thoughts are shaped by the world around us. We also know that the world is cruel towards women. In this same line of thinking it is not a far stretch to know that in the work of not thinking there is a certain thinking that exists. The thinking created by the worlds around us. It’s even more critical when you thinking about the artist.
Michael Soi joined the Kuona trust in 1996 after studying fine arts in art school. He began wood sculpting, but quickly realized that that medium wasn’t relating the story he wanted to tell. – so in 1998 he went into painting, which he has been doing since then.
For someone who has been doing this for about 16 years Soi’s work is a little disappointing. In ‘the boy is mine’ series he takes us through a journey of one of his characters. When we meet the character(Omari) he has been caught by his black wife (I make this deduction from the baby on her back, she could be a girlfriend) cheating with a white woman. She is angry at the white woman.
At this point it is important to note that all the women are defined through the man. While I spoke to Michael he talked about Omari, his wife and his girlfriends. They are brought to existence only through the existence of the man, without him – they are not.
The second in the series has him trying to calm her down. The third has her carrying a panga ready to kill the white woman, who is now pregnant.
The black woman, throughout the series, is portrayed as the problem. She is the bearer of an issue and, in being the bearer she then herself becomes the issue. There is no question here as to male accountability. There is no question here about the white woman. The black woman in the series is always the problem. In fact, the last piece in the series stretches it as far as the black woman is crazy.
The black woman is crazy.
The crazy black woman.
Black women are crazy.
This is the thinking that this kind of work creates and propagates.
Michael himself has talked about this character “… she gets violent whenever he goes to town and hooks up with a mzungu chick leaving nothing to eat at home.” Again, as if all a woman needs is food and money. Once providing this, a man is not accountable for any of his actions.
Art needs to be deliberate.
The problem with Soi’s claim to not think about his work is that in not thinking he is thinking. In not thinking we are deciding to keep the thought process that we were taught earlier in life. And, often, this thinking is flawed, wrong and cruel. The work of the artist is not just to depict, but to create a world.
It is, as it should be, because in viewing a piece of art we try to find pieces of ourselves and of the world within them. In Art on My Mind bell hooks writes:
“… many of the works that art canonically labeled great are simply those that lingered longest in individual memory. And that they lingered because, while looking at them, someone was moved, touched, taken to another place, momentarily born again”
She wrote this while talking about conversations she had while viewing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. While the entire piece does not resonate with Soi’s work, these words do. We talk about another place. This place we are taken to when we view art (and, indeed, when we listen to music, watch television and so forth). This is the place the artist has created. And, if the place created by the artist has not been thought through then, really, how is it different from the place where we are now? And, if it is not any different – what’s the point?
Q: Are you going to follow
in your father’s footsteps?
A: My father’s footsteps
lead to my mother’s bed
where I spent much of my childhood
why return where I have already been?