Art
'Tension' by Evans Mbugua

This Kenyan Artist Creates Stirring "Cosmic Pop Art" Inspired By Contemporary Dance

We speak to Evans Mbugua's about the inspiration behind his striking collections "Identities," and 'Dialogue."

For his first solo show in the UK, Evans Mbugua has created what he's described as “the first visual contemporary dance exhibition," as he carefully puts it.

To achieve the high ambition, the Kenyan-born artist closely observed a pair of male and female dancers for 18 months, in different studios and venues around Paris, France, where he's based.


Mbugua, 38, currently has two exhibitions—“Dialogue" at Gallery of African Art in London and “Identities" at Out of Africa Gallery in the Spanish Pyrenees—both of which opened in December 2017.

'Rise' by Evans Mbugua

2018 is proving to be an equally busy year for the graduate of print design, with a show planned for February at Cape Town Art Fair in South Africa and another in April at Art Paris Fair, where he will be represented by ArtCo Gallery from Germany.

The focus of “Identities" is on individuality while “Dialogue" is the singular story of a pair of dancers in commune. Both set of works are rendered in the most striking fashion using print, photo paper and acrylic glass, commonly used as a durable alternative to glass.

Glass does not typically inspire warmth or the fluidity of dance, even the most stodgy type. Did he not worry that the perceived lack would be an obstacle? “I'm painting humanity. I want to show the beautiful side of humanity," he says. “That's what my art is about. At the same time I agree with you to that glass normally should be cold."

He explains further: “I'm coming from the perspective of stained glass. The transparency and light you'll find on old buildings and churches creates a very interesting atmosphere in architecture. So glass for me is not cold, it's actually colour, it's actually atmosphere."

'Legato' by Evans Mbugua

Mbugua has given to glass the big image overhaul that it would need in my case to inspire warmth, but will not share the finer details of how he has achieved this, being trade secrets.

The works in “Dialogue" take up both floors at GAFRA where 12 life size paintings occupy the ground floor. Downstairs, an entire wall is covered with paper print before which visitors were encouraged to take photos while wearing sunglasses specially designed by the artist. On another wall is a screen showing a short video of one of the dancers, Wanjiru Kamuyu, doing elegant hand and feet work, as though warming up at practice but if over interrupted, would seem like poetic inspirations for the works on display.

On the wall opposite this screen are two sets of 10, small size works (15.5 by 15.5cm) which he's titled “Mouthpieces," and are just that—images of the mouth with the lips highlighted—and are made from, or perhaps cut from, other works combining perspex and photo paper, and imbued with new meaning. “In essence, it is a dialogue between my work and between my subjects," he tells me via Whatsapp messages after his return to Paris.

From the 'Dialogue' series by Evans Mbugua.

The most imposing work on the ground floor is a two-suite piece made from a single image of the male dancer, Smaïl Kanouté, in elegant poise. Both halves—“Beat" and “Rhythm"—could be sold separately are meant to be inspired by the fracture nature of his origins and life today because “part of me is still in Kenya, part of me is still in Paris, part of me today is in London, part of me was New York when I was there the other day, and I love Spain. I think it's a metaphor for just how we are. We could be everywhere."

This one is a hard sell considering the multiplicity he has described outnumbers the simple binary of “Beat" and “Rhythm." But this could be excused as it was well into the evening and after being barraged by questions from visitors about himself and his technique.

'Flow' by Evans Mbugua

Visitors perceptions of Mbugua's distinct works in past exhibitions continue to amuse the artist. It has been described as “Cosmic Pop Art," a coinage which pleases the artist while other assume they are the works of an American pop artist which doesn't bother him. But “when they see me they say you're making African prints but I'm not making African prints. In France it's 'you're doing the wax.' I am not doing the wax," he tells me, laughing at the lazy interpretations and perhaps his own frustration with them, before adding, “I'm sorry I'm creating a universal language using pictograms. It's a sign that everyone uses, just look a bit more."

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This Afro-Feminist Marching Band Is Challenging Negative Stereotypes of Black Women In Paris

30 Nuances de Noires is fighting the erasure of black women in public spaces one march at a time.

If you stroll through the streets of Paris and its suburbs and stumble across a parade of black women wearing shiny outfits, singing and dancing, consider yourself lucky: you've just come across the Afro-feminist marching band '30 Nuances de Noires' (30 Shades of Black).

The band was created by dancer and choreographer Sandra Rose Fanchine. Tired of the erasure of black women in the public space and of the negative stereotypes associated with them, Fanchine has brought women (and a few men) together in this project. Professional and amateur singers, dancers and musicians, they have all accepted to embark on this journey and use their talents to launch this much-needed conversation in France.

Sandra Rose FanchinePhoto by SEKA photography

The band's musical coordinator, Célia Wa, is a flautist, singer and composer. When Fanchine invited her to take part in the project, she was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play alongside other black female musicians and take part in something that portrays black women in a positive light and in a flamboyant way. She was also keen to play alongside other black female musicians and coordinate them, outside, in the public space, where music is accessible to everyone. But it wasn't easy going. "It's hard to find women who play wind instruments" she explains. "But especially black women. So, we decided to incorporate a few black men musicians—men who understand the meaning of the project and support us. They don't try to dominate the space, they wear dresses and headwraps, they really blend into the group."

Célia WaPhoto by SEKA photography

Wa hopes the project will encourage many young girls to become professional musicians by showing them that being a fulfilled woman, having a music career and a family life, is possible.

Awori is the singer of the band Kamiawori, and a singer and dancer in the parade. She accepted Fanchine's invitation to join the band because she realized a brass band made of women—especially black women—was something unique that she wanted to be part of. "Throughout history, women had been forbidden to play wind instruments because blowing into those instruments was assimilated to a sexual act", says Kamiawori. "As a result, nowadays, the majority of people playing these instruments are men, so the fact that Sandra was looking for black women only was really appealing to me".

Earlier this year the band had the chance to travel to French Guiana to do a performance with black Guyanese women. This is the kind of future she wants for the project. "I want us to go to places in France where there aren't many black people, as well as to the former French colonies and the French overseas territories," she says. She hopes the project will start conversations everywhere, and empower black women to talk about their issues in their own words and organize their own emancipation.

AworiPhoto by SEKA photography

***

Read on for our conversation with Sandra Rose Fanchine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I'm 51 years old, I was born in Martinique and grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. I first came to France 22 years ago to study graphic design but along the way, I found hip hop and started dancing out of passion. With my background in graphic design, I knew I was going to be a choreographer eventually, I was convinced I could use hip hop beyond its performance aspect, bringing my visual artist's knowledge to it and using it to promote a narrative. So, when the age of maturity came, I became a choreographer. My first work considered the social construction of femininity, and I then created a piece which dealt with the memory of the black body. 30 Nuances de Noires is my third choreographic work.

Where did the idea of "30 Nuances de Noires" come from?

It came from my professional frustration as a black woman. When I was looking for a job after my studies, my graphic design work was very culturally influenced by my life in Martinique and Côte d'Ivoire. I was proud to show the aesthetics and the colors, to me it was beautiful but it wasn't seen as such, it was seen as something unworthy and my work was always devalued.

I also had to face that devaluation in my personal life. I wanted to partner up with a black man, but I could see that black men didn't value me, didn't give me space and in general chose to have solid relationships with white women. I am light-skinned so I used to pass black men's colorist filters, but this privilege stopped as soon as commitment was mentioned. I looked around me and saw a pattern in the way black men treated black women, in the way people in general treated black women, how we were looked down upon. I wanted to create something about that topic.

Photo by SEKA Photography

Why did you choose that name?

I chose that name to criticize the movie 50 shades of Grey, which from a feminist point of view is a sexist and misogynist movie, that glamorizes violence against women. Moreover, black women, in the global conception related to sexuality and sentiments, are continually eroticized in a very specific way: animalization, exotification and fetishization. I chose to reclaim these stigmas, just as Audre Lorde writes about in the chapter of her book Sister Outsider named "the use of eroticism, and the use of anger: the response of women to racism."

How did the people around you react to this project?

At first, I wanted to do a piece about sexuality, love and the neocolonial aspects of interracial unions but I faced a backlash from people in the cultural institutions and people in the hip hop industry. Whenever I talked about my project I was completely shut down and called a racist.

After all that rejection and denigration, I went back to university and studied gender studies for two years, and around the same time I became an Afro-feminist activist. In the meantime, the project evolved. I used to work at festivals where there were many brass brands and I already wanted to create a marching band with hip hop dancers so I just mixed the two ideas: highlighting black women's issues and creating a marching band.

After equipping myself with the relevant intellectual tools, surrounding myself with other black women and realizing we were all going through the same things, I was capable of demonstrating the systemic nature of what I was talking about and the barriers fell. I was finally in the right place at the right time. I found the artists very easily, the first musicians I met brought other musicians, the first dancers brought other dancers, it all happened very organically.

Photo by SEKA Photography

What type of women were you looking for?

I was looking for women who were strong enough to embody and address those issues unapologetically. They had to be capable of dancing on the streets with an attitude that says "I am standing up straight, I am black, I am glowing, I am shining and you will look at me and ask yourself how you really see me because I am not all those stereotypes you believe I am." Naturally, it first attracted feminists, women who were already aware of those issues. The women who later joined us and weren't aware of those issues are now more conscious and politicized.

What are the musical and aesthetic inspirations behind the project?

I really wanted visuals inspired by the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s because the dances present in the parade—locking and waacking—emerged at that time. For the musical aspect, I looked for songs that talked about black women and their issues: sorority, colorism, equality and resilience.

Photo by SEKA Photography

How do you see the project evolving in the future?

I want to do a world tour, I want us to dance with Beyoncé and Solange, I want to take this message of empowerment everywhere there are black women who need to exist, shine, go outside and assert their presence in the public space. Because of harassment, sexism and prejudice, it's still pretty complicated for women to simply exist. I consider myself lucky because I can see that the band does what I wanted it to do: it really empowers black women and seeing that happening gives me a lot of strength to take it further.

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Seyi Shay. Image provided by the artist.

Seyi Shay's 'Electric Package' EP Is All About Love & Positive Vibes

We talk to Seyi Shay about her new EP, an intimate mix of different afrobeats blends topped off by Gqom.

Talented Nigerian singer and songwriter Seyi Shay recently dropped her brand new music project, the Electric Package EP Vol. 1.

It's her first project in three years, since the release of her debut album, Seyi or Shay, in 2015. The EP, an intimate mix of different blends of afrobeats, contains six tracks, topped off at the end by the Gqom brand of South African house music.

The project features artists from different corners of Africa, including rising singer King Promise from Ghana, Afropop songstress Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania, and rapper and producer Anatii from South Africa, giving it a pan-African outlook.

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Join us on Saturday, June 2, from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The Well in Brooklyn as we mark the occasion with music by DJ Tunez, DJ Moma and DJ Moniki. The vibe also includes art by Laolu Senbanjo, Nigerian cuisine, and a surprise performance by one of Afrobeats' finest.

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