Between Us – Performing the Private in Public
Miriam Syowia Kyambi is a visual artist living and working in Kenya. Her most recent project is Between Us – an experimental multi media production incorporating performance, installation, photography and video that is ongoing at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi and will culminate in a final live art piece on Saturday 5th July 2014 at GoDown. Between Us is the culmination of two years of research Miriam undertook whilst living in Nairobi and traveling internationally, especially her time spent in IASPIS in Stockholm. During this time, the idea of an interactive exhibition with elements of video and live performance took shape, informed by her interrogation of perception which is underscored by current issues of globalization.
In Between Us, Miriam explores new paradigms for interdisciplinary collaboration by working with artist and choreographer James Mweu and dancers from the Kunja Dance Theatre to stage a choreographed performance, creating material that examines contemporary viewpoints on themes that are central to her practice: the body, gender issues and social perception. Between Us aims to unravel and examine critically our perception of what is acceptable, what is private, and the meaning we impose on what we see, informed by how we are shaped by the society we live in and the conventions we live by. The work doesn’t settle exclusively on one theme but stages socially engaged, layered narratives that draw universal emotions associated with vulnerability, disruption, perception and beauty.
The characters in Between Us move about the space, carefully choreographed yet isolated figures, each going through their own transformation through performing every day, mundane actions of dressing, undressing, sweeping the floor, washing clothes and trying on different underwear. The space is feminine and exposes extremely private, intimate practices to the public, creating images our collective consciousness perceives as highly sexual. Unnerving viewers in the process, the work exposes the roots of taboos and questions how our public experience affects us personally.
The constant, private, repetitive, almost ritualistic actions of dressing and posing in front of a mirror, undressing, washing, highlight the carefully constructed and shifting identities demanded by the multiple roles occupied by women everywhere, intimate acts of transformation usually completed in the privacy of one’s own home. Their voyeuristic exposure via the performance simultaneously enhances the women’s vulnerability and their ambiguous power. The male characters attempt at shifting our perception: by sweeping, washing, and interrupting the female performers they engender the destruction of conventional norms and our reading of the work. They try on female underwear, they attempt to break the taboos imposed on our society by taking on female identities, thereby constructing an alternative viewing experience that asks questions about our existence and provokes thought.
We were lucky to catch up with Miriam and asked her a few questions about the motivations behind the Between Us production and her views on the state of performance art in Kenya and East Africa. Read the intriguing answers below, see the trailer for Between Us trailer, and do consider giving your support to the realization of Between Us on Indiegogo (there are only 11 days left of the campaign). And of course, show up on July 5th at GoDown and witness the Between Us performance.
Addis Rumble: What motivated you to start working on the Between Us project?
Miriam Syowia Kyambi: I met James Mweu through an academic doing research on dance, who really connected with both of our practices and mentioned we should have a look at each others works. I really connected with something intangible within his movements and his approach to work even though I don’t come from a dance background. We thought it would be great to do something together but never really found the platform. This was in 2009, I think… then in 2011 I created a body of work called Fracture (i) which I presented in Finland at the Kouvola Art Museum for the ARS11 exhibition series. The work is an installation using several costumes, four projections, mirrors, pots etc. it’s 8 meters by 2 meters. The performance was done within the installation to shift the work, something I do often in my practice, I use performance to make changes to my installation work. Upon my return I attended Mweu’s rehearsals at the time for work he was preparing called Luna. I shared the video of the performance and lots of dancers in the group were interested in the work and Mweu mentioned perhaps this can be starting point for generating new work where we can interface.
I was very eager to change the installation from being linear to circular and having several performers within the space, playing with ideas of time, memory, history, constructing and deconstructing moments. Initially I had approached the Nairobi Gallery, however they have turned their gallery space into a permanent exhibition. Then by luck the GoDown Art Centre offered an alternative together with Swedish Architecture & Design Museum supported by TYPE Cultural Capital. So in 2013 we actually started working on the work. By then my concepts of the work had changed and ultimately I realized it is no longer an extension of Fracture (i) as intended, (maybe this will happen at some point). In 2013 I was more interested in the vulnerability of being yourself, and what that means and if this is achievable and if we have even one self, perhaps there are several selves that we present at different intervals. There is also the pressure to be something that you are not or to please the other person, people. The topic of perception is one I am still interested and hope to explore further.
Why did you choose the multi-disciplinary approach involving both performance, installation, video and photography rather than keeping it more simple?
My approach has always been a multi-disciplinary approach. The major difference for me in this work is that it’s the first time for me to work with a number of people and not just using my body to change the mixed media installation but having several people bring in their own energy and experiences and ultimately their contributions to the material and texture of the work. It’s a very sensitive moment, requires trust and respect. Mweu was in charge of finding the group as he knows my sensitivities and respects my expectations and I trusted him fully as we have similar texture in our work, even though the approach/product is very different.
How do you link the different disciplines and medias you use in Between Us?
I often layer my work, the use intermixing materials and practices allows me to present several narratives at once. I often think of several things at once and have trouble communicating all of the thoughts, images, feelings etc. So I tend to work on little sections simultaneously and eventually thread them together – some elements get lost in this process and some remain, some I could simplify further and some I could build upon more. What I am beginning to enjoy and respect about the process is that it has the capacity to continually change – however this is often a headache for me but one I have come to appreciate.
What is your view on the state of performance art in Kenya and East Africa and the key challenges for performance artists?
A lot of people view performance art in terms of music and dance not so much in terms of live art. The music industry is way ahead of dance and live art in terms of having more developed infrastructure and wider audience. I think this is the case around the globe. Music has an immediacy, which works well with public. I am always saddened by the lack of large audiences attending dance performances this is an area the dancers and its support infrastructure need to work on.
In terms of performance art – live art, there is a long history of performance work in East Africa, this is not common knowledge, or accepted knowledge perhaps due to it’s ritualistic origins as a result the historical practice is not carried forward into the contemporary world, say the way painting on canvas with oil or acrylic has been in Western European Culture. It’s very difficult to convince and audience to invest in an art from which is largely non-tangible in the Nairobi visual art scene. When you attend the event it is something you experience, it’s a moment, and then it’s gone. The use of video and photography help to share this moment but it’s never quite the same and that also has its power.
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