INTERVIEW: AWUOR ONYANGO 

Fòcas Scotland is delighted to announce that we have been awarded the new Art new Audiences (nAnA) grant, through the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme to produce Body of Land. Body of Land is a collaborative residency exchange between Scottish-Zimbabwean artist Sekai Machache and the Kenyan artist Awuor Onyango. Over the next 12 months, Machache and Onyango will explore stories that celebrate what binds and splits the body, spirit, land and social self across contemporary African femininities that are at once rooted and displaced. Fòcas caught up with Awuor about her practice. 

© Awuor Onyango from the series ‘Makeda’ 2016

Awuor Onyango is a writer and visual artist who works in Nairobi, Kenya. Her photography and film claims a fresh imaginative space for black femininity. Drawing on myth, memory, and history, she explores the roles – and sources – of power and transgression as they shape the intellectual, emotional and physical aspects of the black feminine. She has exhibited internationally, and been involved in numerous art projects , which include To Revolutionary Type Love (2017), Some Kind of Blackness and The Library of Silence (2016).  She was also part of project ‘SHE’ an international collaboration exploring the construct of femininity with sweet ‘Art, London, UK.
F: Awuor, you work across film, photography and writing. You’re also a digital designer and a gallerist. What drives you to experiment across such a range of media? Curiosity? Or are you searching, each time, for something? 
A: I borrow from the oral and oratory tradition of my ethnic community in which everything is a communication tool rather than a medium thus centring the artist as the medium. I found that in doing so, writing down a photograph before I make the image allowed me to explore the potential of the work at a much deeper level and open it up to more questions, more space for collaboration from the model or actor or structure that supports the installation or exhibition. They are all connected, in my experience. I started out writing and was often told that my writing was quite graphic and image heavy and that led me towards making images. You’ll often find that if I think of an image for film or photograph I’ll write it down first to try and get myself to understand what the scene is and who the character is and why they pose or gesticulate in that manner. Once I’m at a place where I understand what I’m trying to explore then I’m much more open to how another body can interpret that.
I was initially struggling to find “my medium” at the contemplation stage of my art career when the wise Gakunju Kaigwa asked that I consider the work as more important than the medium I produce it in. This allowed me to experiment the various ways in which one work can be produced, the various textures and perceptions a medium can lend itself to a story, a thought, an image. What medium lends the work its most concise authentic form? Is it written down, still, moving, abstracted, experienced? Does it have to be an art object?

© Awuor Onyango from the series ‘Makeda’ 2016

F: Your work has been shown a great deal outside Kenya, in London and Tunis for example (2016), and you’ll be at the Berlin Biennale this year? Do responses to your work change – and vary – outside the Kenyan context in which it’s made?

A: In my experience when I show work outside of Kenya, it is often I who does the explaining, and when I do it in Kenya it is the audience that explains the work to me. I do find audiences outside of Kenya who connect to the displacement, unearthing and searching, to the questions I ask in my work. There’s a universality especially among people of colour and or urban African spaces when it comes to trying to unearth what was thought to have been erased, trying to reinvent or reimagine or rescue a past archived away from ones reach and estranged from one through layers of unaddressed trauma. I learn a lot through these conversations that bridge something that I was considering about my grandmother’s radicalism with grandmothers in Mexico and US and Accra.

© Awuor Onyango from the series ‘Makeda’ 2016

F: You’ve set out, in some of your portraiture to date (‘Visibility is a Trap’), to explore how – as you put it – ‘Nairobi queers navigate Nairobi,’ to find, I think, a specific and local visual vocabulary for the city’s non-gender-conforming communities to share. You drew on Frida Kahlo, Audre Lorde, Rotimi Fani-Kayode; that’s quite a mixed bag – Kahlo, who drew on Mexican spirituality to Fani-Kayode, who worked at once remove from his birthplace in Nigeria. Do you feel that looking outward, like this, is a necessary part of finding that ‘inward’ – local – communal vocabulary within your community?

A: I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the queerness of Nairobi is a hyper-globalized one and therefore borrows optics from the global. It’s important though to distinguish optics from character. A lot of the local ethnic communities that have pre-colonially been recorded to have normative queer practices (boy wives, girl husbands etc) were about including queerness in the culture and not creating a distinct queer culture outside of them. It’s impossible to imagine what their coding was like, if there was any. The general apathy to heteronormative norms imposed by Christianity and British rule means that optic responses to questions of queerness and representation are crafted from the spaces that ask these questions, which more often than not are global spaces. I think despite the erasure or reconstruction of these practices, like in Christianity there seems to be a solid core or history, a character and roots to Kenya’s diverse queerness’s. The queer scene is not homogenous because the individuals who people it are neither culturally nor eco-socially homogeneous. Navigation can never be stagnant, queer culture in Nairobi grows and transforms and translates and transmutes and discards, shape-shifting often and without pause. I wanted to celebrate its ability to reinvent itself and swiftly move on to what works in the now. While the essence of the thing is difficult to express and capture, the dressing is more evident and more easily discarded.

© Awuor Onyango from ‘Visibility is a Trap’ , Revolutionary Type Love’ Goethe institute, 2017

Body of Land is a new Art new Audiences (nAnA) grantee, funded through the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme. The nAnA awards support innovative collaborations between the UK and East Africa across all creative media. Find our fellow awardees and explore some of their exciting work here.

Follow British Council East Africa on Instagram: @eastafricaarts 

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Awuor Onyango (b.1990) is a writer, artist, filmmaker and photographer based in the pagan citadel of Nairobi in neo-colonial Kenya. Her practice is concerned with exploring politics of the personal, body and the self as art. Her interests include exploring the black African feminine, the gendered leanings of society, the archetypes and psycho-social role of the queer and various socio-cultural implications of “African-ness”. Her aim is to question the colonial, the religious and the “globalized” view of the African as believed by the African, the African diaspora and the colonialist and his kin. Her approach is experimental and often results in mixed media pieces and film and photo-based installations.

Follow Awuor on Instagram here.