Art has always been a matter of taste. Consequently, there are those who were wowed and others who were openly disgusted by Boniface Mwangi’s dramatic use of fake blood and a mock coffin to animate last Monday’s protests against extrajudicial killings and, in particular, the killing of Willie Kimani, Josephat Mwendwa and Joseph Muiruri.
Boniface Mwangi calls himself an artivist, an activist who consciously exploits his talents as an artist in the service of social justice. A year ago, his cult of followers on social media woke up to Boniface’s unusual birthday celebration. He posted One Day I Will Die, a three-minute video re-enacting his own funeral.
There are no allusions, no metaphors and no allegories in this clip. The cinematography is beyond graphic, it is raw. Boniface, in a cameo role, lies cold on a mortuary slab being dressed by an attendant. A service is held, the casket is lowered and Boniface’s weeping widow, Njeri, makes a cameo appearance as she throws soil into the grave.
The sound-track is eerie. Beyond the audacity of Sheng, the voice-over and captions are unambiguous in their invocation of death and the meaning of life.
Artivism is bold, so it is intrinsically drawn to shock art. In a country where people are so averse to writing wills, let alone discussing the minute details of their own deaths and funerals, Boniface achieves the unheard of.
He knows that art is about the incongruous juxtaposition of ideas. A birthday celebration that contemplates death is alarming precisely because death is the antithesis of birth.
Boniface plays on this antithesis and on the emotive value of grief. Can we imagine a Kenya without him? What will we remember him for?
This is the story of a man who wants to matter, who wants to leave his mark in Kenyan history, to join the ranks of the revered Pio Gama Pinto, and Tom Mboya, because he lived a life committed to change and who, therefore, died a useful death. His viewers are invited to think like him — to lead lives that matter, politically responsible lives.
Blood, coffins, corpses and body parts are standard props in shock art. Boniface has chosen to exploit this macabre stock but shock art can be broader and more sublime than a collection of gory images. It includes the inventive exploration of taboo subjects like sex.
A recent example of this is “Carry That Weight” (2015). In this controversial endurance performance piece that went on for nine months, Emma Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress every day, wherever she went on the campus of Columbia University, to protest against sexual assault by a fellow student, demanding his expulsion.
Local art enthusiasts may remember the less subtle performance “The Vagina Monologues”, produced in Nairobi for the first time in 2003 by Mumbi Kaigwa and The Theatre Company as part of the V-Day Worldwide Campaign to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
Written by Eve Ensler, “The Vagina Monologues” is a classic example of art that leaves us astonished because of the audacity and directness with which it approaches the unmentionable — things that are not usually said, or shown in polite society.
A better-known example of communication that assaults the senses is HIV/AIDS messaging in the late-1980s. The outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Kenya in 1984, was met with silence followed by whispers, shock, fear, shame and condemnation.
Campaigns by churches and NGOs to create awareness were hampered by government’s nonchalance and a mixture of disbelief and fear in the general populace.
In that environment of disengagement, Raphael Tuju’s Ace Communications embarked on a series of messages that forced Kenyans to confront bodily parts and functions that they didn’t normally like to acknowledge publicly.
The artwork of the adverts and documentaries was explicit — diseased bodies, deformed body parts, horror montage images of sharks, their jaws mercilessly ripping through humans.
Tuju was forcing us to look at and talk about what we were all avoiding — sex, sexual deviance, promiscuity. His soundtrack included Dunia Mbaya by Princess Jully, a song that magnifies the doomsday prophecies and their stern warnings about the urgent need to contain bodily desires.
Images of men chasing deceptively clad women were legion, juxtaposed against the screaming words “WHAT YOU CAN SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET — AIDS KILLS”.
UNDERSTANDING OVER FEAR
Invariably, it was women who were denigrated in this singular focus on prolonged suffering and premature death as the guaranteed outcomes of sexual promiscuity. The messaging lacked nuance, compassion and an appreciation of the socio-cultural dynamics that underpin sexual relations.
Was the horror messaging of this era a necessary first step in documenting the pandemic and encouraging behaviour change? Doubtlessly, by the late 1990s, the tenor and focus of the HIV/AIDS messages changed.
It had become apparent that people had ways of blocking out shock therapy; developing a resistance to it because it is so didactic, so one-dimensional in its approach to human behaviour.
Additionally, shock messaging of the 1980s had alienated those who were HIV-positive, exposing them to ridicule and social stigma. It was time to talk about living positively, with or without HIV/AIDS.
The new messaging replaced fear with understanding, it aimed at persuading rather than commanding. In so doing, it recognised the value of allowing an audience to explore and discover meaning.
People own an outcome when they are a part of its making, of decoding its meanings, not when they are frightened and shouted at.
Boniface Mwangi’s street art shouts. In May 2012, he painted some walls of City Market and Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi with graffiti images of vultures and a laundry list of Kenya’s political ills.
CHEWING AND DIGESTING
The crowds gathered, the media was agog. It was brilliant art work, but it might have created an even bigger buzz had it avoided the didactic language of politicians who always tell us what to think and what to do. Like them, Boniface was chewing and digesting his message for us.
He didn’t allow his audience to construct various levels of meaning in an ongoing debate that does not reduce or close the meaning of the visual painting to just one thing — politicians are greedy. What about the people they feed off? Are they innocent bystanders?
Shock art rarely opens itself to nuance or variables. Unless it is done as cleverly as Carry That Weight — which was symbolically deep and inclusive of comments, reactions and physical help from passersby — shock art becomes a static, one-star performance in which the audience is reduced to a receptacle.
Indeed, Boniface’s growth from a photojournalist to a performance artist who is not afraid to carry pigs and buckets of blood into the grounds of Parliament is always about graphic but static, fixed meaning. Is his audience so starved of public art that he is forced to explain meaning to them?
New knowledge always lies in the intersection of disciplines. Artivism has this remarkable potential because its search for higher meaning and social change merges artistic genres with discourses from other intellectual disciplines.
REACTIONARY AD HOMINEM
But artivism doesn’t please everyone. It must be anathema to self-proclaimed intellectual purists such as Godwin Murunga, that choleric historian who would have us believe that there is a point at which culture ends and politics begins.
If this was true, last week Dr Murunga should have stayed with history and demonstrated how the 1987 abduction and extrajudicial killing of Stephen Mbaraka Karanja informed the 2010 constitutional provisions that were brazenly violated in last month’s heinous killings.
Instead, Dr Murunga (rather predictably) picked that moment to launch a political campaign that betrays yet another of his stated positions — no one should intimidate the Judicial Service Commission in the matter of the recruitment of the next Chief Justice.
Dr Murunga has a rare mind, for an academic. You can always rely on him to focus on who spoke, rather than what they said. Beyond this penchant for reactionary ad hominem, his talent is an alarming lack of logic. He sets up a premise in one paragraph and promptly trips over it in the very next paragraph.
But commentary that lacks craft and logically inconsistent arguments are horror stories for another day. For now, let us embrace shock art in the artivism movement and grow it beyond its current numbing performance of blood and coffins, into conversations that radically address social injustice without strangling the aesthetic.
Dr. Nyairo is a cultural analyst; firstname.lastname@example.org