Ato Malinda on sexuality, African feminism and performance as art – interview

The Kenyan-born artist tells Art Radar about her work, the causes she is passionate about and Kenya’s art scene.

With performance pieces exhibited in Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Cameroon, among others, Ato Malinda is one of the few performance artists from Kenya gaining prominence on the global stage.

Ato Malinda, 'Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual', performance, photo copyright Ato Malinda and Daniel Jack Lyons. Image courtesy the artist.

Ato Malinda, ‘Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual’, performance. © Ato Malinda and Daniel Jack Lyons. Image courtesy the artist.

A native of Kenya, Ato Malinda grew up in Nairobi, Amsterdam and the Unites States, where she pursued her undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology at the University of Texas, Austin. She has explored various media of art ranging from painting and drawing to installation, video and performance art, with themes exploring colonialism, race, gender and the ontology of feminist narratives.

Art Radar talked to Malinda about her influences and artistic practice.

What drew you to art? Were you always artistically inclined while growing up, or was it something you found at a later stage? You studied Molecular Biology as well as Art History at University of Texas in Austin – was being an artist then always part of the plan?

I was always an artist, from a very young age, performing for friends as well as drawing. I guess it was always an issue in my house growing up, because my father never wanted me to be an artist. I went on to study Molecular Biology in college and that was a premise for my father for me to get into medical school. And, of course, I hated that and I wasn’t a doctor or a scientist, so it was something that I didn’t pursue. But yes, I always knew that I was going to be an artist and that I was an artist. In college, I was just painting on the side and creating new works.

Initially you started off with painting, but now you have moved on to performance art as perhaps your primary medium. What brought about this move?

When I was in Texas, I wanted to perform and during my undergraduate degree I knew that people could perform as an art form and I knew that that was what I wanted to do. But when I moved back to Kenya, no one was doing that and no one had an understanding for it, so I just started painting again because the environment wasn’t conducive to what I wanted to do. Then in 2006, I moved to London for a little bit and that is when the sort of performance bit was re-awakened.

And did you consider bringing it to Kenya?

I just decided that it was what I wanted to do. I was a bit older and more confident to make that move. There are some artists here who are involved in performance art, not many though, so yes.

What is your thought process while creating a performance piece? Do you plan out each detail or does improvisation play a significant role?

I don’t plan out every single thing that is going to happen, but I do have a rough guide. It begins with a concept – it always has to, I believe. I set about thinking how I can bring it to fruition and what would convey certain aspects of the concept, what media I should use and so on.

How about when you rope in other people to work on a performance piece?

I have only done performance pieces with other people a few times. The first time, it wasn’t scripted, but we knew what we were going to do. We had a concept and we sort of trusted each other and went with it.

Ato Malinda, 'Prison Sex II', performance. Photo copyright Ato Malinda and Anand Madhvani. Image courtesy the artist.

Ato Malinda, ‘Prison Sex II’, performance. © Ato Malinda and Anand Madhvani. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you consider yourself a Kenyan artist? Or as an artist first, with Kenyan roots? What is ‘Kenyan’ about your work?

I wouldn’t say that I am a Kenyan artist; I would say that I have Kenyan citizenship, but I grew up in the Netherlands and the United States, so I feel that there are certain aspects of my identity that are rooted in other places. But some of my work is Kenyan in its nature, because it deals with issues in the Kenyan context. I did a piece called Prison Sex II, which deals with the visibility of coastal women in Mombasa. I did that piece at Fort Jesus and it talks about the Kanga (African garment) and its origins.

What do you think of the current art scene in Kenya? What do you imagine will happen in the future, how can it realise its potential?

I think that Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan place and I think that the art scene here has grown since I have been back. To a certain extent, it can be rewarding socially, but I still think that the art could improve. For the media that the Kenyan artists are using, they are virtuoso artists. We have some amazing painters and sculptors here. As far as performance goes, it is slowly getting there. Miriam Kyambi just did a performance at the GoDown Art Centre, which took a lot of effort and thought and you can see that in the work.

Along similar lines, your work has been described as exploring African feminism. Do you consider feminism to be a universally applicable idea or do you consider it to be a very personal notion, bound by cultural modalities – given that each woman’s struggle is different from the next? Tell us about how you have explored this through your artwork.

We have come to a stage in globalisation where the local is what really matters; you have that phrase ‘the global and the local’. I think that it is important to have feminism within your own context. Feminism is a lot of things, and obviously the sort of narrative and the debilitating factor of feminism is the overarching notion that it is promoted by Western, white women. I think that is just not the case. There are a lot of African women who are strong and fighting for their rights and it is important that their voice is also heard.

Almost all of my pieces explore this element of the local female voice. In Prison Sex II, the piece talks about a woman who was imprisoned at Fort Jesus when it was a prison: a Muslim woman who wanted a divorce from her husband, but was told that she can only get a divorce if she was put in prison for six months. So the piece is about her story as well as about a female freedom fighter who fought the British, because they wanted to cut down the sacred forests of the coast.

I also did a piece called Dans Mon Brun in Douala, Cameroon and looked at African identity. In the piece, I was wearing a dress called Kaba, which was given to Cameroon by missionaries who basically wanted to ‘civilise’ the local people. And the dress sort of evolved to be the same design but with the addition of indigenous fabrics, so the notion of female identity, which is a hybrid of the West and African, becomes very powerful here. And because I am a woman, I feel that it is very important to express how capable my body is and using it as a medium for art. How capable it is and yet how subjected it is to what people inscribe on it.

From the various exhibitions you have done, how receptive do you find people to be to feminist narratives in art? How does it vary whether it is in Berlin or Nairobi? 

I think it is different as it comes down to context. Geography is about context. So, for example, when I was performing in Europe for the first time about four years ago, I did a piece called Incommensurable Identities, and it looked at how the African woman’s body is viewed in the West. I mentioned Hottentot Venus, the South African woman who was paraded around – themes of exhibitionism, objectification of the female figure and so on. Of course, my performances in the West have evolved. It was the sort of opening to discuss, “Okay, this is my work, so now where do we go from here?”

When I perform in Africa it’s a different context, but like I said, people will inscribe their beliefs on your body and so it becomes very powerful because you can feel it, you can feel these perceptions. As an African queer body that exists in this space, I feel like we have a long way to go. We still live in a very patriarchal society that is unwilling to give leeway to the female form. I did a piece called Prison Sex I that is about female genital mutilation of girls and how girls don’t have a right to their person. And that itself is a very political right where one can be subdued sexually by taking away their right to self.

Do you take the audience into account when you are planning or creating a performance piece?

Definitely. I hate complacent audiences. It is very important that the audience realises that they are a part of the performance. It is not a theatre piece where I am there to entertain you; it is communication that is happening. Just as much as it is my performance, it is theirs too.

Ato Malinda, 'Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual', performance. Photo copyright Ato Malinda and Daniel Jack Lyons. Image courtesy the artist.

Ato Malinda, ‘Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual’, performance. © Ato Malinda and Daniel Jack Lyons. Image courtesy the artist.

Art can pose as a powerful weapon in the struggle or acceptance of ideas. You had a very interesting piece called Mshoga Mpya, or the New Homosexual at Dak’Art 2014, in which you shared an intimate space with a single audience member at a time and performed accounts of the LGBT community in Nairobi. What was that experience like?

Collecting these narratives was completely harrowing, because people’s stories were beyond anything I could imagine. People were so willing to give, which was amazing and I wanted that to come across in the piece. The interviews were so intimate, so raw. I didn’t want the risk of having a complacent audience, so I decided to do it one-on-one where people had to enter a very small cubicle and sit in front of me and I would do the performance.

These performances were taken from the interviews, but my mouth was obstructed so I would release little by little pieces of information to the audience. I didn’t want to give it all away at once, because there was so much power in it. On the floor outside the cubicle, there was a map that had information on how to get from my house to the various queer spaces in Nairobi – but it was very abstract for issues of safety.

I really enjoyed doing that performance. People’s reactions were varied. Some were scared to enter, some left very impressed. But they were all quite bewildered by the stories.

You also co-curated an exhibition at Dak’Art OFF called “Precarious Imaging: Visibility and Media Surrounding African Queerness”, which was actually attacked, leading to the exhibition closing early. How did you feel after the event occurred? Were you pre-empting it, given that it took place in a region where homosexuality is taboo and outlawed?

We thought that it would be fine because a whole programme called Personal Liberties had begun earlier in the year and there was no backlash against it. But we were surprised. The exhibition itself did not get attacked, but the gallery was vandalised by some men in the middle of the night. It is also a very scary thing. The Director of the Raw Material gallery decided that – after these radical Islamists had come on TV and were saying that Raw Material was promoting homosexuality – that it was time to close down the place for safety issues.

And finally, tell us something about your future projects. How do you see your work evolving?

I can’t say much on any upcoming projects, but I will say that sexuality is a big issue and that I would like to continue working on it, both on sexual abuse and African queerness. It is definitely the theme that I am interested in exploring further.

Anjana Varma


Related Topics: African artists, African contemporary art, performance art, interviews

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