ART ADDRESSING ISSUES OF IDENTITY AND MENTAL HEALTH
By Margaretta wa gacheru (posted 23 October 2018)
Mental health isn’t an issue that’s often addressed by visual artists in Kenya. It’s a topic that tends to be kept concealed behind closed doors, as if it’s a shame or social stigma that the public shouldn’t know about, leave alone observe as art.
Yet Naitiemu Nyamjom and Nelson Ijakaa have chosen to tackle the topic frankly, honesty and visually through Ijakaa’s photographs and film and Naitiemu’s serving as the embodiment of the issue in an exhibition at The Attic Art Space that opened last Saturday.
“We both have had to deal with the effects of trauma, especially from the loss of our fathers,” says Naitiemu who admits that she was deeply disturbed after the passing of her dad, a man to whom she was very close.
In fact, it’s mainly her personal experience of trauma that inspired the two to explore this challenging psychological topic, which is sometimes referred to as OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Ijakaa’s images are meant to visualize the troubled mind-set of someone suffering from OCD. Thus, many of his images are blurred, intentionally without focus or clarity.
That’s the idea, the couple say. Ijakaa’s images of Naitiemu are meant to convey that disturbed sort of mood swing. For instance, in one series of shots, her visage in apparently joyful, then depressed, then contorted such that one can see and feel her teetering mood swing.
Yet the best reflection of what they’re trying to convey is most clearly expressed in the short video of Naitiemu starting off in silhouette and silently struggling to cover up with a diaphanous cloth. Her movement is graceful but pained as one can see the mental anguish.
The title of the exhibition is ‘Identity’ which is an issue that equally applies to the paintings of the third party in the show. Lemek Tompoika’s art isn’t about bipolar depression or even PTSD (a condition normally associated with people who have been to war).
But his artwork also attempts to convey a mind-set that many urbanized Africans have struggled with. We’ve seen it in literature, such as the novels of Chinua Achebe and autobiographies of Africans who are creatures of two worlds.
In Lemek’s case, his family background is Maasai. (Coincidentally, so is Naitiemu’s). Yet he, like Naitiemu is unclear on where he stands psychologically, since he’d grown up far removed from Maasai traditions. Yet he still feels a deep affinity for that culture, although not enough to turn his back on his Western education and urban lifestyle.
In a series of paintings which are mixed media, he uses the image of a black kaftan to symbolize one concept of culture. Not that Maasais are normally seen in kaftans, but for Lemek, it’s a neutral garment that changes gradually in his art, transforming subtly through several series of mainly black and white works.
Like Naitiemu and Ijakaa’s art, Lemek cares to raise the issue and convey the dilemma that he personally faces. His paintings don’t suggest that he has solved his problem, any more than Ijakaa’s images do.
What all of their artwork does do is give a visual voice to their personal struggles. Their art is intense and highly abstract. It reflects inner moods and honest feelings that ought to be the essence of fine art.
Certainly, theirs is an approach to art that The Attic’s founder and curator Willem Kevenaar relishes. “I appreciate art that expresses a sense of personal struggle,” says the art and business consultant who’s just celebrated his art space’s first anniversary of existence. “Struggle is a common theme among the artists whose works we exhibit at the Attic,” he adds.