Interview with Jackie Karuti, Artist at Kuona Trust Art Centre
Interviewers: Anna Lafrentz and Sabrina Loll
Please introduce yourself - anything you want to share!
My name is Jackie Karuti, from Nairobi, Kenya. I‘m an artist based at the Kuona Trust Art Centre in Nairobi. My work includes paintings, installations, and I’m also experimenting with performance art. I also try to find other areas of interest where I can be involved in some sort of artistic way, for example in film, photography, literature, and dance.
So how do you see yourself as an African woman here in Kenya?
I don’t, actually. You’d be surprised at how ‘un-African‘ I am. I wear pants, I don’t carry pots of water on my head, I’m opposed to many traditional, cultural practices... I say this because to most people, ignorant people mostly, that is what it means to be an African woman. But really, I see myself bringing change through my work to an otherwise rigid and ignorant society.
And as an African artist? As a female artist?
I think my first reaction would be to say, I don‘t like being described as an African artist the same way someone wouldn’t want to be described as a European artist. But simply put, yes, I am an African. More specifically, I am a Kenyan, a woman, and an artist as well. All these identifiers and labels used to bother me a lot before, but nowadays, I try not to think about it or the stereotypes attached to it.
It´s very funny. I read an article about how African artists describe their art, and the article said that many critics say “Oh no, that is too traditional, that is too African. You need to be global, or whatever“, and the other critics said that if you didn´t paint with traditional symbols and ornaments, you´re not authentic.
Yes, this happens a lot. Funny enough, most of these critics have never set foot inside Africa. Their idea of African traditions, or what African art is, is totally ridiculous and misguided.
How do you see your role as an artist? It´s actually the question of yesterday’s discussion [podium discussion in Kuona Trust for „50 years of Kenyan Art“] – we were not very content with the answers. Maybe you can go a little bit more into detail. What is your role as an artist? Why do you have so many mediums to express yourself?
My role, first, is to be an artist here in Kenya, in Africa, and in the world. I try not to be location specific. But here in Kenya, I think my main agenda would be to tackle things other people are not comfortable with. I‘m not really a good speaker. I’m more of an observer, so whenever I say something through/with my art, I find that I have communicated very well as opposed to when I literally speak about it. That’s what I think. I wouldn’t say I have many mediums to express myself, because what I do is just working across different disciplines, but focussing more on painting, performance art, and installation. With performance especially, I use it because it´s an interesting platform to experiment, as well as an alternative area to express myself. There is one thing you can say with a painting, but can’t do so with a sculpture. It’s the same thing. I have collaborated with a photographer for still-performance which is an alternative to live-performance. I have featured in a film which is also a form of performance, and I used to dance a few years ago which is very much considered as a performance aid.
But that´s interesting. Yesterday in the discussion, you said you use art first to express yourself. Now you say it a little bit different.
Actually, the question that was asked on the panel was “Who do you make your art for?”
I said I make art for myself first. When I experiment with all these different art forms, it’s for myself, because I want to discover something new or something different. Most importantly, when I tackle these unspoken issues, it’s for myself first.
What makes you want to communicate?
A lot of things need to be said in the places I find myself in, but these things are not being said or talked about in the right way. But this again is subjective. What I consider to be right might be wrong to other people. The point here, I believe, is to have your own voice. On the other hand, again, I’m not reactive. If something happens right now, I probably wouldn’t be triggered to make art about it. I find that’s what most artists do. If there are no trending issues, then for a lot of artists it means they cannot create as well as they usually, do which is wrong. I just create regardless, with or without something happening stressing my previous point that I create art for myself first.
What inspires you?
The feminine form, music, books, film, urban culture
You have many female bodies in your paintings. Is there a special reason for it?
Not really. Identity and gender are themes in most of my paintings, and women just happen to be my focus gender. Painting the feminine figure and telling a story through her is also very pleasant, I must say. The closest I’ve come to painting male bodies is a series I did, but even then the figures were very abstract so you couldn’t really tell which was the point.
This is really confusing. Maybe you can tell your opinion about these stereotypes.
As much as they exist, we shouldn’t tolerate or abide by them. I would be bored and even pissed off if somebody told me that I have to paint pictures of women with pots of water on their heads, because I’m an African, or because that’s what considered to be African art. Times have changed and there’s so much more about being African besides living in Africa. People should focus more on what the art’s about, as opposed to where the artist is from. I believe that whenever you describe yourself as an artist, you shouldn’t put the location first in the description. That is, don‘t say “I am a Kenyan artist”. Instead say, “I am an artist from Kenya”. This, I think, makes really good sense, because if you were to be taken out of Kenya, you would still be an artist. But in the first statement, it sounds as if it’s Kenya that makes you an artist. It shouldn‘t have to be like that.
How much does Nairobi as a city influence your work?
Nairobi influences me totally. I was born and bred here. I’ve experienced so much here.
I don’t know much about my up-country – meaning where my parents grew up – except from stories I hear or what I see whenever I visit my grandparents. So Nairobi is what I know best. I’ve visited Johannesburg in South Africa a couple of times, and I found both cities to be very similar. It’s like an African kind of New York. It‘s the energy. The energy of Nairobi, the people, the ideals the people stand for, what they do not stand for, but also it‘s the chaos. Really. Because sometimes Nairobi is not functional. I complain and hate it most of the time, but I‘m still here and I absolutely love it.