Q and A with Thokozani Mthiyane

orange goes to heavenQ1. You are dealing with a very serious if not a sensitive subject with a very humorous attitude, – even ‘Orange scarf goes to heaven’ – is the assemblage in my mind – would you say that societies who are different, despised, looked down on, yet often are the embodiments of existential truth, denied by the majority?

A. Nigerians in general like a good laugh and would deal with the gravest of issues with humor. They will laugh at the deplorable state of education; make a joke of the nepotistic governance of the president and his wife; draw cartoons of the pedophilic senator who decides what becomes of our constitution. Nigerians are known for laughing at their circumstances rather than changing them. This syndrome is what FELA calls “suffering and smiling”. Yes I need to use this humor to make my subject-matters approachable.

The orange scarf was a trip back in memory lane, some 20-something years ago when I was not allowed into the prayer grounds for wearing an orange scarf. I was told God did not like women that made themselves attractive and wearing colorful clothing was punishable here on earth and here-after hell fire. It has been a long journey of self discovery since then and I am still trying to understand the world around me. Realizing that I may never understand why earthlings do what they do and the resulting confusion and helplessness of this realization makes me respond with sarcasm that transmutes into humor.

When we talk of societies that are different and despised, I think of the African society often representational of poverty and despondency. But it is subjective. It is subjective because a different perspective from within these societies will be a contradiction. These societies are very complex and cannot be characterized simply. Are these societies an embodiment of existential truth? I am too biased to answer this question. I share the same opinion as Søren Kierkegaard who is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely.

 

Q2. My experience of your work and you as an artist brings forth, thoughts that are not at ease with the contemporary realities of women in Nigeria and Africa in general – the ideas that are palpable as i explore your work are part of the chorus of the songs of the instigators of the revolution – more of a personal revolution rather- which is the quest for truth over servile obedience to cultural and religious hypothesis. How do you juxtapose this with the conformist world out there ?

“…chorus of the songs of the instigators of the revolution…”! Thank you Thokozani.

My work tends to be philosophical. But I am Yoruba, lover of Yoruba mythology and an idealist. Yoruba is a very philosophical language and thinking in this language, when translated into English language remains poignant despite it’s true essence being lost in translation. My work really can be said to be a fantasy world of Orishas and their involvement through interactions with earthlings. Living in this part of the planet Earth, knowing the essence of it’s original ancestral wisdom being lost and forgotten to contemporary lifestyle overwhelmed by material pursuits, I want to take to the streets like the half-crazed-shirtless-dreadlocked-barefooted-bell ringers announcing doom to unconscious souls; if I thought it will bring about a positive change. I am of the opinion that art can bring the positive change most required in this part of the world. But a doctor too will have his convictions that better healthcare will do the same, and a legislator believes the rule of law will. My work is that metaphorical bell of the crazed prophet or the beret of ‘Che Guevara’ fighting for the liberation of the human mind from the corrupt capitalism. I seek the revolution of the Nigerian mind, a liberation from religious and cultural indolence, for there should be only one culture and the is the HUMAN CULTURE.

As utopian as my quest is, I have a plan. My plan is to redeem the female folk. Please do not confuse this with feminism but let us call it womanisation. I am most frustrated with the role women play in country building. The Nigerian woman is so downtrodden that she willfully accepts the denigration apportioned to her and wishes not to reinvent/ resurrect herself. Her situation changes whenever she wishes it must change. I write and create art that enobles this woman, that it may be seen that She indeed can again be powerful. If the woman’s position is restored to her, she will raise a new generation of human beings and not aberrations.

To answer your question, how do I juxtapose my work with the conformist world…- I do not think I am successful in this, I am more in anguish than sublime. I have learned much earlier that I am the aberration in this part of the earth. I chose to be exotic before I understood its consequences. My works and ideas reflect this. The acceptability of what I do fortunately is not my concern but those it confronts. How do the conformists engage with my work? I have no idea.

 

Q3. At other times , in spite of your work being an embodiment of a painful if not a trying narrative of human history, gender politics and other human conflicts – you are able to clothe the subject with an aesthetic appeal that also has a symbolic allusion to beauty and enlightening parables – what has been the response on your ideas by other artists?

Thokozani, if I told you I have no idea the response of other artists, I’ll be correct. Quite frankly you will be the first visual artist that has engaged me in a discourse about what I do. The artists I have worked with I would say are too close to my work to be objective. Artists from different genres are more open about their perceptions of my work. Musicians and architects are more open to collaborative ideas with me.

Recently, Prof. MOYO Okediji an art historian and artist wrote a lengthy review on my work (which is included in this book). I find it most revealing to me as I learned more about my work than I thought I could from anyone-else. He also organized an online discourse/interview called face-to-facebook. He had people from all over the world ask me questions about what I do. Many artists want to know my aspirations and personal conquests within the art-world.

Here in Nigeria, I could not escape the constant ‘female artist’ allusions, as though my gender is a surprise and they need to remind themselves I am missing an appendage. I am to be flattered that I exceed their expectations of what my gender is capable of achieving. When it comes to the narratives and conceptual ideas of my artwork, I am not sure I am fully understood or considered. The aesthetic appeal overrides everything else. This is a big frustration for me as I feel they are missing the point. I yearn for an audience that can perceive visually, conceptually and can engage in a discourse about their reaction to the artwork. I sometimes wonder if I am not communicating my ideas effectively, then I am reminded that very few artists are understood in their time.

 

Q4. The daughter of Olurombi, her corporal presence is felt more through the thoughts she provokes – she could be the faces of women from all the forests of the world – her eyes incapable of visibility – her voluptuousness is the promise of eternal orgasms – if not the answers the masculine world seeks yet again there is a serpentine force about her – whose force lures and awakens ideas that lead both to purgatory and eldorado – …… The question is who is she and what is her purpose in the resurrection concept?

The exhibition ‘WRAPTURE’ can be Subdivided into 3 parts. the Resurrection, the Earth Stories and the Folklore. The entire show called WRAPTURE is a dramatization of fantasy, beliefs and fables. An entire nation is colonized with the pretext of saving It from eternal condemnation; or say, an entire nation surrenders Its Will, accepting a position of inferiority, exchanging Its mythologies for another myth.

There is a called holy scripture that says at the death of Christ, the earth quaked and graves of the dead were opened and bodies were resurrected. The congregation chorused “AMEN!!”. People have been judged and murdered in the most gruesomely violent manner in defense of these scriptures. Another man claims there is no legal marriageable age for a female in his belief; a belief which dictates a nation’s constitutions, and it is his legal right to be married and have sexual relations with a child as young as nine-years of age. Wrapture is a presentation of fantasy that I hope gives my audience an opportunity to examine and consider what they believe and why.

An extremely important aspect of Wrapture is the Folklore. Olurombi is a yoruba folklore story that has stopped being told and has been replaced by stories of Cinderella and some dwarfs. My presentation of ‘The Rapture of Olurombi’s Daughter’ is a response to the hypocritical assumptions of what stories the African child should learn with. We as a people have denied ourselves and the world the benefits of our own stories. This self denial is taught at the earliest state of intellectual maturity to ensures there is an elimination of self worth. As a young child I read books of the blue eyed, blonde haired Cinderella; the long golden tresses of Rapunzel; pale skin, red lips of Snow White. I was fortunate enough to learn about Olurombi’s daughter, omo re apon bi epo, but I cannot say the present generation of children in my country have ever heard the story. I have not come across a book about Olurombi nor did I as a child have any illustrations of a little girl that looked like me in any of my books. Is there little wonder why women in my generation, we grow up wanting to look like Cinderella or Rapunzel? Chris Rock missed that point in his story of Black Hair.

The Rapture of Olurombi’s Daughter is a piece which captures the exact moment when she is raptured/caught up and all that remains of her is her essence. Thokozani, I am glad when you say her corporal presence is felt more through the thought she provokes… Because her physical body is absent. Her essence is that strong to identify her as a woman of the forest, a queen in stupendous regality and still sensual.

 

Q5. and then there are The caretakers who i believe represent – the darkness and lightness of A woman’s heart. the winged girl from resurrection has that delusional aspect of innocence – her’s is thAt of a philosopher woman more inclined to the liberal tendencies yet a constant reminder that all is allowed but one ought to be able to deal with consequences – as she is not one to be grounded- who is she and what is her place in the this drama…and then there is her ethereal sister whose breast promises to be the pillow of a man who has sang many a sorrow songs – however explicitly sensual she has airs of a responsible woman whose heart has been broken many times yet like a moth will return to the flame…

Your observations of these women in Wrapture, Thokozani, seem like a description of me; maybe it is because they are a reflection of who I am or maybe I am like them, or they are like very many women; Women who exudes any kind of female power or ‘weakness’ in a patriarchal world. The female form is a sensual form. Science explains how every curve and even time of the month of a female body influences her male counter part. In the Wrapture, the female form is very poignant. As explained earlier, I wish to ennoble her and exhibit her powers, though her physical being is absent, through her essence and even gestures. I relate these powers in visual representation and parables. Female forms sprouting leaves (like the Caretakers) symbolize the generative power of woman, woman as life giver and vessel, as nurturer and guardian.

The winged woman in resurrection is an archetype of the myth ‘Dead Bones Shall Rise!’. In Nigeria, there is a general belief that the deplorable state of the Country will be restored by an almighty outside force (heavenly), an absolute denial that we are closer to the conditions that lead to Syria than a heavenly intervention. They will deny that the average Nigerian is corrupt after all the sins of the evil doer are forgiven every Sunday or Friday and are made wholesome and blameless by the recitation of holy words. Woe betide them if judgment day happens in the middle of the week, they are covered by mid-week service and only these attendees shall be saved. A conversation with a devout believer inspired this collection. She had asked me to repent of my unbelief in the LastDay. She said the on the last day a trumpet will sound from heaven and will amplify all through the earth. Angels will descend and destroy all unbelievers and evil doers. I asked what the angels’ choice of weapons would be, she said swords. I said in response that it would be a very bloody murder fest, she said the angels will clean up the mess. I asked if the angels will clean up with vacuum cleaners or use good old fashioned brooms, she said they had magic wands. I said the angels reminded me of Harry Porter, she was horrified, she said the angels were blondes with perfect eyesight. She said all righteous people who were once dead will be awakened from the graves and resurrected. Earth will be restored once again to paradise. I asked if the resurrected will rise naked or angels will be on guard by every grave to give clothing to the reawakened, she said she would get back to me soon with the answer.

Resurrection asks questions about what we have been instructed to believe. The sculptures are winged as though about to fly but yet fully grounded. There is the innate desire of every child to fly. We attribute wings to angels, why? Is it because we associated them with the ultimately evolved human beings and we aspire to be like them? If we evolve into winged creatures, should we grow feathers or will it be leather wings being closer related to the only flying mammals, bats than other birds. There is a joke about bats being the angels of rats.

I understand the need for fantasy. “Life Of Pii” illustrates it all too well. A question I was asked once was “why is there an inherent need for man to be lead/directed/instructed?” My answer is, the man is inherently indolent. But indolence is not a natural state for man. Man must apply himself and make his own path. This is why slavery can never be an acceptable condition for any human, but exists regardless. And are we not all like a moth that returns to the flame? Indulging in the very thing that destroys us?

 

Q6.Language and image – i find myself standing in front of your work and instead of looking and absorbing the beauty that is presented by the metaphor that your art is – i wondered if you subscribe to the notion of radical feminism or you are a woman who makes art that explore the condition of womanhood in an obviously male fucked world – in a world that is sexually appealing yet putting the issues of gender politic be fore what is essentially a human condition – eliot wrote something about a hollow people – what i realise in your human figures is haunting presence of this hollowness and then whiles wrestling with that morbid notion something else arises and that is you are examining a history behind existence and that definitely can’t be hollow?

I was in the dream when i realise my quest for eternity – the women’s eyes always promise – like spring when the leaves reveal more than they conceal – i learn how to dance inside my mind – thoughts prevail even when the candle light soon burns away – i hold on to the hands of fate – yet still i have to seek….