Sunday, September 2, 2012

MaryAnn Muthoni's 'Woman Vote' Installation raises important questions


 Maryann’s Inquisitive Art Installation
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
August 31, 2012
Maryann Muthoni looks nothing like a political militant, leave alone a ‘feminist.’
MaryAnn Muthoni's installation entitled The Woman's Vote was up in August at Kuona Trust. Photo by Renee Mboya
Yet this petite and soft-spoken young Kenyan painter print-maker is inquisitive.
So that when her colleagues at Kuona Trust challenged her recently to explain why ‘women are their own worst enemies’ and ‘women will never support each other politically’,  she felt compelled to delve more deeply into Kenya women’s political reality – as opposed to the myths, stereotypes and simplistic (self-serving) putdowns of women.
What she came up with were more questions than answers. Were women really disinterested in politics? And were they really unsupportive of one another becoming political activists? What about the solidarity that one sees within rural women groups? Is there really no such thing among Kenyan women as the ‘sisterly solidarity’ that one finds among women in other parts of the world?
Muthoni’s ‘research’ (including all those questions and many more) compelled her to create an interactive installation at Kuona Trust  which opened late in August, which she entitled ‘The Woman’s Vote’ and which amplifies issues related to women’s political participation.
For instance, are women underestimated as political beings? Or are they merely sheep to be manipulated every five years by sweet talking politicians who promise them heaven and earth on condition that they vote for the men when Election Day comes? Are women so preoccupied meeting family needs they have no time for politics? Or would the country be well served to put more women in leadership positions?
The installation itself is very different from the lyrical oil paintings and 5-color prints that Muthoni is best known for. At the same time, since she completed her arts training at the Creative Arts Centre in 2000, she has been involved in a wide array of art projects ranging from painting HIV-AIDS awareness murals all around the countryside to stenciling Nairobi city center trash cans with environmental messages and colorful edenic landscapes.

So the fact that the installation includes an eclectic array of objects, including placards (covered in powerful political statements), voting booths, ballot boxes and  papier mache heads of a diverse assortment of African women (a Maasai, a veiled Muslim, church-going mama, trendy college student, and classy business lady) should come as no surprise to fans of Muthoni.
But strangers may have a hard time grasping what all this paraphernalia means, especially when women’s disembodied heads are dangling like Calder mobiles from the Kuona ceiling. What do these heads have to do with ‘The Woman’s Vote’, really?
As it turns out, Muthoni’s art requires one not to simply scan pretty paintings and sculpted heads, but to actually think deeply about the implications of women being taken seriously as political beings.
The only way her installation really works is if one interacts with all of its elements situated in Kuona’s small exhibition hall.
First off, one needs to get into Muthoni’s voting booth and ‘vote’ on various questions posed on her paper ‘ballots’: questions like “Do you think Kenya is ready for Women leadership?” and “Do you think most Kenyan women are empowered to make informed decisions in voting?”
After that, one has to place his or her ballots in the ballot box (the tally of which will be posted on the Kuona Trust website) and then check out the plethora of placards which Muthoni designed with assistance from Sylvia Gichia and Renee Mboya, Kuona’s two top administrators.
To me, the placards hold the key to understanding this slightly cyptic installation. For the placards make bold demands that can’t be ignored, such as ‘Family Voting (meaning the man dictates the woman’s vote) must cease’, ‘The secrecy of the ballot must be assured,’ and (my favorite) ‘All political parties [must] ensure women’s participation in leadership on an equal basis with men in all political, social, economic and cultural matters.’
The placards reveal the radicalism of ‘The Woman’s Vote’ and expose the fact that quite a few women are ready and willing to participate fully in Kenya’s political process. At the same time, Muthoni’s installation shows how subtle yet surprisingly bold Kenyan women can be. 
The irony is that if one visits Muthoni’s studio, which is also at Kuona, one will see more expressions of empowered women. Again, their power is understated, but the images of women boldly boarding boda boda motorbikes, their headdresses billowing in the wind, and even women riding bikes by themselves are powerful reminders that Kenyan women’s perspectives have changed dramatically in the past few years. It is women artists like Muthoni whose art reflects those mountain-moving changes, visible both in her prints and oil paintings as well as in her political installation.

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