REIMAGINING THE GENDER PARADIGM
AN INTERVIEW ATO MALINDA AND GABRIELLA BECKHURST
GB: Your previous performance works have dealt with challenging issues such as incest and sexual abuse in Games (2013) and the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Prison Sex I (2008). Additionally, Is Free Dumb (2010), which was performed outside the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi, addressed freedom and equality of women, and yet a symptomatic turn of events resulted in an unlawful arrest and a refusal to acknowledge the performance as art. What drives you to work with these subjects in a landscape that often denies your engagement?
AM: I believe that the tacit quality of art allows us to express certain subjects that initially may appear unapproachable. Games was a very difficult show for me. The piece I performed was called Mourning a Living Man and was about my own experience of sexual abuse at the hands of my father. The final project of that performance is a double channeled video, with the combination of both videos being from the viewpoint of a recollection. The two women represent a same-sex relationship. Their communication is a reflection of unsatisfactory per-locution, as stated by J.L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words. One woman speaks English, the other French. The woman who speaks in French recites a poem by Nikki Giovanni called ‘Choices’. The wife is the representation of my mother; a bit ethereal and unaware of the incestuous relations in the house; and in the domestic situation, not as prominent as her ‘husband’. Although this domestic situation is reflecting my parents’, it also reflects my own as an adult lesbian woman. The ‘father’ articulates his statements to the ‘wife,’ but they could also be directed to the unseen daughter. The father is unsatisfied sexually by both mother and daughter and leaves them both. The chopping of the carrots directly represents castration, but also represents the castration of the daughter from the father’s influence; and ceases his performance as his daughter’s superego. This video is the representation of dysfunctional domesticity, with miscommunication, incest and/or adultery achieved through gender performance. The daughter is represented in the second video as archival footage of me and my father during my childhood. This video is a recollection of a childhood that occurred in between the first video’s dynamics and shows my father’s head multiplied in place of other people’s heads in the photographs: Attesting to the debilitating consequences of sexual abuse, but also to the abuser’s narcissism.
I made Prison Sex I, when I was in London in 2008 and working with a London-based NGO called Forward UK. They work primarily on eradicating FGM and child marriage. I have worked with them since about 2007, and still work with them. It is fulfilling for me in many ways to work with other African women on empowering African women who are not afforded basic human rights; the most important being the right to person.
To my recollection, I conceived Is Free Dumb, as a very simple performance. Essentially, all I wanted to do was read in the streets of Nairobi! Of course I set a context for this reading. I placed myself in a cage, baring my shoulders with my body wrapped in an East African leso. This is not uncommon attire for East African women in their homes. So I wanted to highlight the quotidian and bring the private into the public. In the morning that the performance began, I set out in this attire, reading popular contemporary magazines at a table within the black wooden cage. I wanted to understand the reading of traditional and contemporary as a Kenyan woman, and discover why indeed I felt caged. However – yes – the Nairobi police force did not take kindly to this experiment, and I was imprisoned for eight hours in downtown Nairobi. Of course, this result says a lot about the climate in which I was operating and indeed answers the question as to why I was feeling like a caged woman. Since that performance, the city council of Nairobi (and the police) has gotten a little more lenient, as is my understanding.
There is something very basic and intrinsic that leads me to do the performances that I do. I am fulfilling a rights-based need; I need to feel that my politicised black, female, queer body is both protected and respected. I feel the only way to do this is to be a part of the conversation.
GB: You have previously talked about the importance of performing as an agency that connects performer and audience. A space by which both enter a dialogue bound by human experience, what other factors define your role as a performer?
AM: Yes, I feel that all art is bound by its audience. I always say that once I create a drawing it is no longer my piece of art (even if I still own it). Once the act of creativity occurs, communication transpires. And one cannotown a conversation. Even if no one sees the work, a potentiality remains. Of course the connection with the audience is more direct with performance. I find sometimes that it is not uncommon to perform in front of complacent audiences. It is important to me that the audience knows that they are part of the performance and conduct themselves in such respect. As with all performance artists, corporeal context is important; race, class, sexuality, geography, etcetera, all important factors. All these social factors do not exist without both the mirror stage and the Other. A congregation of Egos makes the world interesting, but also ensures that complacency is relegated.
GB: I am interested in how certain geographies implicate your performances, i.e. how might a European audience, such as with the exhibition Games (2013)which took place in Berlin, compare with other audiences, for example those in Nairobi? As well as digital audiences, which inherently collapse geographical specificity, do you further exhibit the works after the performance has taken place?
AM: As I mentioned above, geography is definitely an issue I am concerned with. My first live performance in Europe, entitled Incommensurable Identities (2011) was done in the cadre of my performance colleague and friend Tracey Rose who has in the past empathetically expressed verisimilitude to Venus Hottentot: I first and foremost wanted to discuss how my body is viewed in a European context. As well as discussing the performative body, I also wanted to situate the performance within European performance history with elements from early Dada performances. So what you saw was an African woman in Europe performing on a Dadaesque stage. I wanted to speak about the perceived incommensurability of Africa and Europe. Are Europe and Africa commensurable? I do not know!
The issue with performing on the African continent is as interesting one, but not completely dissimilar to Europe. I find that in different ways both audiences prescribe and inscribe their beliefs upon my body.
GB: The theme of this year’s Dak’Art was ‘Producing the Common’, how did the work you performed, Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual engage with this concept?
AM: Mshoga Mpya was the result of almost a year’s worth of research on queer space in Nairobi. It engages with ‘Producing the Common’ because the very intimate one-on-one performances that took place within a small bricolage cubicle were taken from a conversation of life stories with queer Nairobians. It spoke to the homophobic human rights record of African states. Beside the cubicle lay a textual map that described with everyday vernacular how to get from my home to spaces each queer person delineated as safe space.
GB: The title, it seems, addresses demand for a new model, or a future archetype of sexuality. Could you speak about the implication of gender neutrality in Mshoga Mpya, of positing yourself as an androgynous vessel?
AM: The use of the word ‘homosexual’ is a reference to the biological history of sexuality. Foucault describes the thinking around the homosexual physiology in the 18th Century in The History of Sexuality; it was thought homosexuals were fundamentally different and deficient in certain regards. The addition of the word mpya, or new, implied that there was an older case. I wanted to subversively attack the notion proliferated by African politicians that homosexuality is an import from the West. In fact it has always been on the African continent, and we are the new homosexuals.
Unfortunately, the androgynous intentions were not played out the way I intended in the performing of Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual. The intention was to be representative of as many genders as possible. I find it fascinating that a transgender man could just as easily pass for a gay man. The malleability of gender is a beautiful thing.
GB: In Butler’s reworking of gender performativity delineated in her 1993 text Bodies That Matter, she cites that gender, in certain instances, acts as a vehicle for what she calls ‘phantasmatic transformation’; or a promise of rescue from poverty, abuse, homophobia, and racist delegitimation. How far would you agree with Butler’s notion of the law as an overarching symbolic threat, that the law “compels the shape and direction of sexuality through the installation of fear”?
AM: I would agree with Butler; the law, through the abjection of certain bodies, dictates sexuality. Uganda is a good example of this. Through the passing of the anti-gay law earlier this year, the Ugandan government is able to not only control sexuality, but also the sexual imaginings of its people. I have seen interviews with Ugandan people who believe homosexuals should be killed. Not just imprisoned; they believe someone should lose their life for being a homosexual. This leaves little room for discussion. This law has validated such thinking through viability.
In Kenya, acts of sodomy have a fourteen years penalty. About prison, Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o says that “prison is the space in which the state performs its power”. The threat of prison under law deters from performing same-sex desires and therefore contributes towards the determination of national sexuality.
GB: Alongside your practice, which also comprises installation, drawing and painting, you are also a curator. As part of a year-long programme dedicated to personal liberties within the context of freedom of speech, sexuality and homophobia, as devised by Raw Material Company in Dakar, you co-curated with Koyo Kouoh Precarious Imagining: Visibility Surrounding African Queerness (2014) featuring Zanele Muholi, Andrew Esiebo, Jim Chuchu, Kader Attia, and Amanda Kerdahi M. It was met with local and international publicity, mostly due to its alleged forced closure a couple of weeks after opening. How was the exhibition received in Dakar?
AM: In the context of the ‘Biennial Off’ programme, the audience was wonderfully receptive.
GB: How did you find its circulation through the media met with the exhibition’s intended purpose?
AM: I think the exhibition went very well. Unfortunately, Raw Material Company had to close it early for safety’s sake. Muslim council men accused Raw Material of promoting homosexuality and incited Dakarois to take (violent) action against the gallery. Luckily no one was hurt, and no work was damaged. However, I found that although the media appeared to be on our side, there was a large element of sensationalism that was counterproductive. I understand that journalists want to get the story out and read by as many people as possible, but exaggerating the circumstances or incidences is not the way to do it. Non-heteronormative sexualities are a sensitive topic on the continent, and reporting extremities will not help those of us who live here.
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London, Routledge, 2011, orig. 1993). 69
Ato Malinda (born 1981) grew up in the Netherlands, Kenya, and the USA. She studied Art History and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, and has a Master of Fine Arts from Transart Institute, New York. She began her professional practice as a painter and now works in the mediums of performance, drawing, painting, installation and video, and also as a freelance curator. She has exhibited at Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK) in Berlin, Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Salon Urbain de Douala in Cameroon and the Karen Blixen Museum in Copenhagen.
Artwork © ATO MALINDA