Low life, high art and stories to see

Friday April 21 2017

From Kukandwa, a split-screen video by Rehema

From Kukandwa, a split-screen video by Rehema Chachage. PHOTO| FRANK WHALLEY 

By FRANK WHALLEY

Upon entering the white-walled gallery you are confronted by a sequence of photographs of a woman picking up a khanga from the floor and pulling it around her waist; to the right is a video of a woman in a full red skirt, seen from above and whirling like a dervish; to the left is a split-screen video of a woman having her naked back slowly massaged.

Then there is a white curtain across the gallery. Pull it back and turn right into the enclosed space.
On the floor is a bath half full of water, onto which is projected a letter about a barmaid accused of immorality. In front of the bath are half a dozen burning altar candles.

Turn left, pull aside another white curtain and view some henna patterns projected on a screen. Below them is scrawled a handwritten poem about how henna is a second skin. Music plays.

Intriguing and yet I am mystified. Is this really the current exhibition at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi?
It is — and it is yours to see until next Tuesday, April 18.

Called Mlango wa Navushiko (translated as Navushiko’s Lineage) it is the work of Tanzanian Rehema Chachage and it is the first of a projected 29 chapters in her ongoing project examining rituals and stories affecting women in various societies throughout Africa. With it, thank God, comes a catalogue explaining the meaning and relevance of it all.

Written by Tanzanian curator and photographer Asteria Malinzi, it unravels all mysteries and leads us gently towards an understanding of what on earth Chachage is banging on about.

I can now tell you that the woman in the photographic sequence Mshanga (the artist herself) is carrying out the traditional practice of binding her stomach following birth… pulling the muscles back into place with a tightly wound cloth. The mshanga, a cut piece of cloth or, more recently a khanga, was also wrapped around the stomach to stave off hunger pangs and is a reference to the artist’s great grandmother Orupa Mchikirwa who, with many mouths to feed, let herself starve.

On the left, the split screen shows stages of the healing process by which a woman who has recently given birth is massaged with hot water by a close family member; a mother, grandmother or great grandmother.

This ritual, kukandwa, is an example of the support women give to each other.

The woman spinning slowly in the billowing red skirt (again, the artist) is echoing the movements of Sufi worship in an act of meditation, while the bath of water with projected text tells the story of the wayward barmaid. The candles denote worship, marking the bath as a shrine to her memory. All shall be forgiven.

The video in the other cubicle, called The Flower, is accompanied by a wailing chant and progresses from a woman in a wedding dress to patterns of henna that look like flowers. With it, more text tells the story of a woman giving birth alone and crying for her own mother’s comfort and help.

Thus, this multimedia installation — five years in the making — illustrates verbal storytelling traditions and presents elements from the artist’s personal history as a metaphor for the underlying beliefs and practices of many African societies.

The text that illuminates all these works is by the artist’s mother Demere Kitunga — revealed as a poet of some substance.

Future projects — and there are to be 28 of them — are to include examinations of slavery and colonialism.

This is not an exhibition that could be transferred easily to anyone’s home… not unless of course the new owner was happy to have a bath half full of water surrounded by burning candles in the middle of the sitting room.

Then there are the projections. They would require this same adventurous art lover to curtain off a corner of a room or the end of a corridor, dedicating a goodly slice of the house to a sound and light show on an endless loop.

No, this is essentially a gallery or museum show. We have to troop along to these temples of high art and duly worship, leaving amid a flurry of respectfully murmured words such as, “immersive,” “overarching,” “engaging,” “exciting” and “concept.”

It is brave of Circle to put on a such a show; not a selling exhibition for sure, and therefore the directors’ way of giving something back to us; of putting a little something into the bubbling stock pot that makes up our general experience of art.

But the fact remains that as an exhibition it is austere and initially both puzzling and inaccessible. Malinzi’s free catalogue not only helps, it is essential reading to grasp the point of this show.

This work is not, as I remarked about another artist in another review, a tune you can whistle.

But once you give some time to it, and give it time to settle in your mind, it is in fact highly unusual, provocative, intelligent, interesting and well worth seeing.

Oh, and yes, it is also “immersive,” “overarching,” “engaging,” “exciting” and a “concept.”
Well, it is …