By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published November 6, 2014
Is home where the heart is? Is home where the physical body is? Is home the place where one is born? Where exactly is home? And what is the definition of ‘my people’? Is the title ‘my people’ reserved for blood relations, or can it expand to accommodate the people with whom one has emotional ties with?
Those are some of the questions a 128-page art publication titled Ato Malinda that is published by Goethe-Institut in Nairobi, grapples with.
Based on the life of artist Ato Malinda who introduces herself as having been born in Kenya and bred in the United States of America and Europe, the book—really an art exhibition catalogue—is a combination of artistic pieces by Ato Malinda exhibited around the world and which in a way attempts to answer the question of home, belonging and identity.
Ato Malinda, who refers to herself as an actress by birth and a fine artist by choice, says she studied Art History and Molecular Biology and now holds a Master’s degree in Fine Arts (Creative Practice), writes she returned to Kenya in 2004 and got the impression that the country of her umbilical cord was not yet ready for the person that she had become and neither was she ready for the Kenya she met.
The art of Ato Malinda—who works in the mediums of performance, drawing, painting, installation and video besides working as a freelance curator—is simple and easy to understand. She uses mainly pictures of real people whom one can see and recognise and of places and household utilities that are culturally-relevant to Kenya and her neighbors such as the leso or khanga cloth which is mainly used by women to tie around their waists. However, the emphasis is on the writings on these pieces of cloth and what they portray about the culture of the people among whom they are created.
Ato Malinda, considered a radical activist by many, also uses her own body as an art tool and paints it in different colours and with different patterns to prove different points. She says the art of painting her body is alluded to ancient African performances as a ritual practice to create contact with the spirit world which is an age-old practice in many African communities. It may be radical to discuss or push issues of skin colour and sexuality elsewhere but for Malinda, they aren’t subjects to be ignored as her search towards a full personal identity continues.
As an activist, Malinda also uses her skill to push for various causes in life, such as the fight against female genital mutilation which she does through a video, freedom of expression and the right to be who one wants to be as long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of others.
The book, to make it a lot easier to be understood by a non-artistic mind, consists of writings by various people who have interacted with Malinda and her art-work and who understand art professionally. These writings serve to engage the reader in a discussion about some of the issues that are raised by the art exhibited in the book.
The book begins with an interview Ato Malinda does with artist Nancy Hoffmann. This introduction not only introduces the reader to Malinda but it also introduces the reader to her concerns, her worries, her victories, her thought processes and her vision which takes one through even to the testimonies of the other writers about her work.
The language of narration that Malinda and the other writers in the book –Didier Schaub, Nancy Hoffmann, Simon Njami and Nathalie Mba—is very deep and makes the reading interesting, ultimately enabling the book to serve two purposes: being both an art book and an essay book. As the book progresses, there are short epitaphs at the end of each chapter to help the reader in the analysis especially if the reader is interacting with artistic exhibitions for the first time.
One of the things that make this book relevant to the society today are the enduring themes which are addressed through both the artworks and the writings.
Identity and a need to belong feature largely throughout the book bringing the reader to that point where they take a break and ask themselves if they really know who they are and if they know, what is the impact of their life to those whose lives cross theirs.
The book pushes for serious existentialist reflections and how this existence can be made whole by understanding purpose as one journeys through life. And like many artists of the day, Ato Malinda does not fail to put in her thoughts about the state of politics and how that relates to art and artists vis-a-viz how it affects their work.
The book also has lessons about the place of passion in our everyday life. Although Ato Malinda and the other writers in the book do not overtly talk about the importance of passion in life, it seems to follow through every page in the book. This passion in the way Malinda speaks in the interview and even how the other writers write about her is what keeps the readers of the book interested in the unfolding events.
The book is mainly written in English but some of the writers from the Fracophone countries had their work translated into English.
Ato Malinda’s works have been exhibited in places Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt and Denmark. Some of her titles that have been exhibited and also appear in this book include Prison Sex 2, Prison sex 1, Ritual Practice, On fait Ensemble, Africa Untitled, Untitled Series Curacao, Looking at Art, Fertile, and Rebuilding. Some of her paintings and drawings also appear at the end of the book.