A conversation with Jackie Karuti
by Bongani Kona
Jackie Karuti (1987) is an artist based in Nairobi. Her practice is largely experimental and employs the use of new media through video, drawings, installation and performance art. Her work explores the depths of possibility enabled by speculative worlds, access to knowledge, death, sexuality and urban culture.
Karuti is the 2017 recipient of the Young Artist Award at the Cape Town Art Fair, an alumna of the Gasworks residency program in London as well as Àsìkò, a roaming Pan African art school designed to redress the frequently outdated or non-existent artistic and curatorial curricula at tertiary institutions across Africa. She has participated in several exhibitions and residencies, both locally and abroad, which has seen her collaborate with other artists and institutions in a selection of various multidisciplinary projects.
Bongani Kona: You work across a variety of disciplines – painting, installation, performance art. I’d like to begin by asking what art form you were drawn to most as a child? Did you always envision yourself working as an artist?
Jackie Karuti: As a child it was always drawing, reading and watching film, specifically animation. I also used to make the best props for different events. I am aware of how all this feeds into the work I’m making now, even though back then it was just a thing I was good at. Although I never envisioned myself working as an artist, I was certain never to stray away from the divine world of making things with my hands, appreciating beauty in all its forms and seeking intellectual nourishment.
BK: You grew up in Nairobi in the 1990s. How did that shape your way of looking at the world?
JK: I hated my childhood. I have developed a case of selective amnesia over the years especially stuff from the 90s and early millennium days. So I only date my life from when I turned 25. I was born in Nairobi and have always lived here. To this day I find it hard to navigate my way around the city physically and mentally so I do it in doses. Nairobi like most urban cities is a very male space for able-bodied, loud and entitled humans. Also if you’re a person with their head in the clouds most of the time, there is no space for you. I was also interested with this pseudo narrative of displaying urbanites as confident, while most were/are really a sea of anxiety filled university graduates and dropouts. My thirst for books led me on searches to street vendors in different corners and that helped me map the city. Now and then I still feel lost in a lot of familiar places locally and abroad, but it is no longer a scary thought.
I’m hesitant to speak about people having a great impact in my life but there are a few that made me look. There was an art and music teacher who introduced me to perspective drawing and the concept of VR when I was 13. He loved doing dramatic Kiswahili readings of King Solomon’s Mines and composing music, which he’d play us on his battered guitar. He especially introduced me to books and films outside of my scope because he was also a chronic conspiracy theorist. That was gold for my overactive imagination.
BK: Are there any Kenyan artists that have a significant impact on your work?
JK: Not really. But I admire the passion and dedication that a few of them have cultivated to becoming better people and to growing their practice.
BK: There are various themes that thread through your body of work. In particular I’d like to ask about Labyrinth (2015) and A Great Perhaps (2014). The former deals with life and the latter is a meditation on death. Take us back to the time you were working on those exhibitions, and the circumstances that led to the genesis of Labyrinth and A Great Perhaps.
JK: A Great Perhaps was developed while at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg. It ended up being the title for the two-person end of residence exhibition they gave myself and Thato Nhlapo, a Johannesburg-based artist also in residence then. Later the following year I had my second solo show Labyrinth in Nairobi. I saw this as an extension of A Great Perhaps but I later felt that Labyrinth should have “happened” or come first. Anyway, it was a difficult time for me that I choose not to address.
BK: The first installment of your video performance series, I Can’t Wait To See You (2014), was shot in Johannesburg, South Africa, by the late photographer, Thabiso Sekgala, and you dedicated the first part of the series to his memory. How did you meet and what was your working relationship like?
JK: We didn’t really have a working relationship. Just a solid friendship and mutual appreciation and respect of what we were both doing. This performance was the only work we did together. I met Thabiso in 2012 in Lagos where we were both participants of the Àsìkò School. In 2014 I was in Johannesburg undertaking a residency at the Bag Factory and he had just come back from a year-long residency in Berlin. Since we had stayed in contact over the years, we spent a lot of time together then and so when I told him about I Can’t Wait To See You, he offered to shoot stills and video for me. Later, I would rethink the title of the work after his sudden passing because people kept asking whether the work was about him. It is not. That was a morbid twist I would never have anticipated.
BK: Both I Can’t Wait To See You and the painting series, Helmet Ladies, explore how women are perceived in society, a subject you’ve often drawn attention to. Tell us a little bit about Helmet Ladies and I Can’t Wait To See You?
JK: The helmet is an object I used as a metaphor for protection and safety, but also as a restrictive, claustrophobic and silencing device. Helmet Ladies was a painting but more importantly it was a sketch for the performance. I was looking at things like verbal and sexual harassment, body shaming, homophobia, misogyny and the restrictions around using public spaces as canvas.
In I Can’t Wait To See You, I’m seen standing in public spaces wearing the helmet with the other person wearing a veil. At some point I lift the veil off their face presenting the idea of a union of sorts, as seen in mostly Christian weddings, where the brides face is revealed to pronounce her a married woman. We are able to share this intimate moment oblivious to the chaos but aware of imminent hostility and danger around us. Staged in different cities, the performance addresses how this hostility and danger in its various forms can be and has been inflicted especially upon women in these five vastly different but sometimes similar urban cities.
BK: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you’re inspired by film, urban culture, music but I’d like to ask about your relationship with literature – the kind of books you’re drawn to and why?
JK: Books and reading as a way of learning outside of the bland school curriculum was my first love and way of seeing and making sense of the world.
I love and prefer fiction. It allows my mind to play. While I still draw influence from non-fiction that comes highly recommended because of its profound nature, most is usually to keep my mind sharp. I have recently been reading an anthology of short stories from different African countries, which beseech the reader to respect the sacred calling of the storyteller; where you must listen and participate in the act of storytelling. The power of narrating was closely linked to magic and stories were sung or acted out. This is what feeds and transports me. I’ve also been actively reading and collecting artist books, zines, publications and essays structured around art production in Africa, catalogues of relevant exhibitions that I can’t afford to travel and see, print issues of magazines and the occasional Murakami.
BK: What was the spark for In The Case of Books, I and II, and Where Books Go To Die? And what have been the different responses to the project? (See In The Case of Books-Kampala, 2015)
JK: The spark for these two related bodies of work was my need to interrogate current systems of education in Kenya or the lack thereof in the arts. It was also a way of provoking thought on how best to seek alternative ways of learning, knowledge production and accessibility, more so as artists working and living in African countries.
I framed this project within the context of a performance because I first wanted the idea of approaching the work in real time and executing it in different ways. The physical dusting of shelves was one way of presenting the library as a sacred space where knowledge was acquired and passed on, but it was evident from the amount of dust we found that most of the books had not been touched in a long time. The participatory nature of the project also shifted focus from it being about Jackie’s views on the matter to the views of different people expressed over shared conversations and meals, or while dusting and browsing inside the libraries. Lastly, the group excursion around the city allowed us access to public and private spaces all the while discovering the disappearance or lack of these necessary reading spaces.
For my first solo exhibition, Where Books Go To Die, I presented the notion of a dead library inside a gallery. I later got to travel to Kampala for a residency at 32° East where I addressed similar issues using the art library there as a starting point of not only being a living example of thriving art libraries in Africa, but also one with material that is relevant to people like us.
Overall responses have been positive with most people agreeing on the necessity of libraries existing as physical spaces in the continent. But that poses a challenge especially if the space does not sustain itself. To substitute for this in a small way, I began an online platform called I’ve Been Working on Some MAGIC. It is dedicated to critical art writing from Nairobi, but it also operates as a collective curatorial space. Inside there is a section where I frequently list different books, film and music that are currently feeding into my practice and so I make this material visible and available to anyone who requests of it in Nairobi.
BK: The concept of “home”, the meaning of its loss, threads through Sanctuary City + To Our Glorious Dead (2016) and There Are Worlds Out There They Never Told You About (2016). Take us into your thought process that led to the creation of these two installations
JK: On this constant interrogation of ‘home’, a black figure or silhouette of a man continues to wander. The constant presence of crows makes us question their role, the suspended satellites transmit signals, moons and stars act as compasses and measures of time and planes fly back and forth. There are also boats that capsize and fences-which became the installation, To Our Glorious Dead. There is always a journey implied from one or all of these things. There Are Worlds Out There They Never Told You About was the premise of what is now a growing body of related work which begun as drawings on paper. It has gradually developed into books, installations and videos, as also seen in my new experimental video, The Planets, which presents our world at a time of great anxiety.
I had abandoned painting and decided to concentrate more on drawing as well as researching new ways of incorporating digital media to the work without the heavy reliance on Pro Tools. This work was my most invested in terms of technique and subject matter. It also helped that where I was in life had significantly shifted. I feel that I have become this wandering man but I’m quite honoured and happy that the work is resonating with so many people.
BK: Thank you for your time. I’d like to end with a broad, open-ended question. What can art do in these troubled times?
JK: Well art can’t do anything. The artist however has a responsibility of making things visible to the masses.
I will also quote Manori Neelika Jayawardane commenting on a recent article in Hyperallergic on Kara Walker:
“No, art cannot ‘solve’ racism, stop asking black artists to bring resolution. These are structural issues. It ain’t on Walker’s back or any one person’s. But I get what Prince is saying. If she doesn’t feel she wants to, there are others who do. Not ‘solve’ but respond to, and take the political burden of speaking up. If Walker’s work concerns ugliness of racism/effects/how they remain with us, she must take responsibility for the work/responding to racism.”
Jackie Karuti work was recently featured in Tomorrow/Today, a selection curated by Tumelo Mosaka and dedicated to showcasing solo presentations by emerging artists who will be tomorrow’s leading names in art, at the Cape Town Art Fair, 2017.
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