Contemporary African photographer & artist: Syowia Kyambi profile

Rose’s Relocation Series, Syowia Kyambi 

Syowia Kyambi is a contemporary award-winning Kenyan artist who uses photography and the archive as two key aspects of her practice to explore her country, her past, her sexuality and the shifting world around her. Her work traverses multiple platforms as she finds diverse and appropriate media through which to express herself  – from sculpture, painting, video, sound to performance.

At the heart of her work is a critical interrogation with the ‘comfortable’ representations of history to the present. As her website more eloquently puts it, “In Kyambi’s artistic practice history collapses into the contemporary through the interventions of mischievous and disruptive interlocutory agents who interrogate the legacy of hurt inflicted by colonial projects that still frame the wider political conjuncture of now. The work is messy, complex and uneasy requiring its viewers and participants to bear witness to an embodiment of collective experiences, and a constant search for links between the now and the morphed now that is encapsulated in her work while asking important questions about what is remembered, what is archived, and how we see the world anew.”

One of Kyambi’s most engaging interventions is the fictitious masked character, Kaspale, that references as she says, “a historic Makonde mask in the MARKK Museum collection, which was created by an artist in colonial Tanzania to embody mindimu, the ancestors. It is usually worn during a dance that accompanies the reintegration of initiates into society after transformative seclusion.” On one hand Kaspale provides space for indigenous voices that were thoroughly muted unless for colonial manipulation but also at the same time offers a platform for dystopian aberrations in a post-colonial setting. Kaspale is mischiefously disruptive and provocative.

As she further explains, “Kaspale is a character devised to intervene in spaces charged with colonial activities. As a playful trickster who engages in social critique and satire, Kaspale calls out authority when needed and speaks up when others can’t. Kaspale wears a Kaunda suit, a symbol of prestige and political resistance during the post-independence era, bearing also connotations of servitude in our contemporary times.”

Kyambi and her alter-ego Kaspale beautifully probe and prise out the contradictions and often unspokeness of emerging “fast mutating” African societies. Who tells the story? prompts much of her ongoing the work. Two photographic essays encapsulate this. In Rose’s Relocation she explores the experience of a Kenyan woman living in Europe as she struggles with alure of modernity and longing for her traditional past. Through reflection on glass buildings and superimposition, one is drawn into the dislocation and tension of a person living grappling with the push-pull of diaspora and home.

In Cultural Fabric? she cleverly allegorises the issue pervading Kenya’s sense of culture. She provocatively asks, “what cultural fabric does Kenyan society have or is developing, if any?….why is the representation of Kenyan culture, a Maasai shuka (blanket), why a whole country’s identity is represented and re-represented by the cloth of only one tribe out of more than forty-two?” Her essay challenges modern-day cultural appropriation. Her essay is based on her mother’s hessian (gunia) shirt. As she points out, “The gunia still permeates class and tribal divides. It symbolizes growth, referencing agriculture, construction and interior decorating industries among others. These photographs have become a vehicle to ask several questions about identity and history: what is the meaning of this metaphor, this idea, of society having a cultural fabric? What are we building? What has already been built? By whom and what for?”

In an earlier work, Infinity: Flashes of the Past, Kyambi her curated images explored and problemised the archive, past and present. As observed by Annie Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega Munen in Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya, “Together they represent the key categories which constructed the colonial image of Kenya to a British public keen to be simultaneously horrified, seduced, and vindicated. On the one hand, these consist of ethnographic ‘types’, missionary propaganda, official images from British royal tours, or colonial atrocities perpetrated under British colonial rule…On the other hand, images from a newly independent Kenya, of presidential social functions and official troops inspections produce another kind of fiction. The colonial archive and its successor’s meaning are transformed through Kyambi’s reconfigured combinations… Kyambi has intentionally segued interruptions to the official accounts presented through familiar public genres by inserting scenes of private domesticity in unexpected context…Deliberately mixing together images from such different categories produces a tension which serves to shift the monolithic character of most commemorative sculpture.” 

Kyambi is also a community arts activist. Through a project in Nairobi called Untethered she supports and enables emerging artists a vehicle and a space for expression.

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