I recently had the pleasure of attending the Full Frontal Exhibition by Kenyan artist, Jessica Atieno, in Nairobi. In the exhibition, described as “a conceptual art installation on the paradox of the female’s place, form and perception”, Atieno uses her art to interrogate various aspects of femininity and how much society has shaped perceptions of it.
While looking at the various images on display, questions on representation of womanhood – not only in society but in different forms of art – arise. It is quite a revelation that she uses images of women in different forms of nudity to create impact for what she needs to convey, and to create a platform to talk about women and their different states of being.
Beyond the nude figures, what makes Atieno’s exhibition stand apart is its use of headless nude women. Her reason: she wants people to see the women on their own, without the identity and belief system attached to their faces.
What makes a woman?
Atieno is not, however, the only artist to use art to reclaim women’s body. There are quite a few other female artistes using various art forms to shift current perceptions about women bodies. But the faceless female form, as depicted by Atieno’s work, forces the viewer to interact the with female body without prejudices around what the owner looks like facially and whether she conforms to, or challenges, popular notions of beauty. These arguments, if and where they arise, must all instead be negotiated within the realm of her physical form.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is that it has expanded the platforms on which issues affecting women can be discussed. Here, the viewer gets to engage with the art and come up with their own perspectives and conclusions about whether, and what, the art speaks to him or her. The images, while nude, are not sexualised and this goes a way towards debunking the myths that are associated with women’s naked bodies as often represented in popular culture.
One of the attractions of the exhibition was a installation, Prisoners of Beauty, that featured women in different types of distress, and how woman are perpetual bearers of society’s burdens. This brought to the fore the quote by artist and activist Wangechi Mutu, which states,
“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”
This is true in many African cultures, where the woman’s rights and freedoms are diminished. Even though there has been some improvement on this front, women still are not as free as they would want to be. Dr. Osunyikanmi, in her article Africanising violence against women? asserts that African culture “still restricts, albeit unwritten, the rights of women in marriages due to social stigma and the craving for acceptance by in-laws, one’s family, and society as a whole.”
In a country where the media discusses things like how female empowerment has led to the disenfranchisement of men, such spaces are most welcome as girls and women are still facing major violations to their rights and are still unable to access opportunities at the same rate as boys and men. This is proven by such as The Fallacy of the argument that Girl Empowerment Leads to Crisis of the Boy Child in Kenya, where statistics indicate that boys still trump girls in education, and consequently many other aspects of life.
In the opinion piece, What Makes a Woman? , Elinor Burkett mentions that she has been fighting against the efforts to put “our [women’s] brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.” And this is what Atieno sought to show; that women can be as diverse as they want to be, and that they should not be limited in this.
It is a beautiful thing that women are taking the initiative to tell their own stories and therefore creating awareness and changing perceptions in the society.