Having Given it No Thought

By Michael Onsando

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Anais Nin

It was 1961 when Anais Nin gave us these words. The Seduction of the Minotaur  shows a strong sense of psychoanalysis. It talks about how Lillian studies herself and her actions. Artist Michael Soi, on the other hand, doesn’t seem interested in any form of self analysis. “I don’t think about it, I just draw what I see.” This is the response he gives when asked about the problematic depiction of women in his paintings shown during Sex and the City at the Alliance Francaise, Nairobi.

Wine was flowing in direct correlation to the intensity of the hum of several conversations and there Soi stood, with a slightly smug smile.  It seemed the world had suddenly shifted, on its axis, towards this concept of ‘not thinking about it’.

What kind of thinking does not thinking propagate?

We know that our thoughts are shaped by the world around us. We also know that the world is cruel towards women. Thus, in ‘not thinking’ there is inevitably some kind of thought process. It is even more critical with regards to political artist like Soi.

Who is Soi?

Michael Soi joined the Kuona Trust in 1996 after studying fine arts. He began wood sculpting, but quickly realized that the medium didn’t relate the stories he wanted to tell. In 1998 he started painting. Throughout the years he continues to define women through a man. When Soi talked about one of the characters in his work, Omari, he shows how the figure of a wife or girlfriend is always brought to existence only through the presence of a man.

The black woman, throughout the series, is portrayed as the problem. She is the bearer of an issue; in being the bearer she then herself becomes the issue. There is no question here as to male accountability or the stereotyped role of a white woman. In fact, the series stretches as far as to conclude:

1. The black woman is crazy.

2. Look at the crazy black woman.

3. Black women are crazy.

Michael himself has talked about this character, “She gets violent whenever he goes to town and hooks up with a mzungu chick, leaving nothing to eat at home.” As if all a woman needs is food and money. This results in the notion that once these things are provided the man is not accountable for any of his actions.

Art needs to be deliberate

The problem with Soi’s claim to not think about his work is that in not thinking he is thinking. In not thinking he perpetuates thoughts process that taught earlier in life. And, often, this thinking is flawed, wrong and cruel. The work of the artist is not just to depict, but to create a world.

In viewing a piece of art we try to find pieces of ourselves and of the world within them. In Art on My Mind:Visual Politics, Bell Hooks writes:

“Many of the works that art canonically labeled great are simply those that lingered longest in individual memory. And that they lingered because, while looking at them, someone was moved, touched, taken to another place, momentarily born again”

Michael Onsando is a writer, poet and art critic based in Nairobi Kenya. This is his first contribution to Start Journal.

1 thought on “Having Given it No Thought

  1. Thinking is overrated sometimes.
    When I saw these pieces, they made me laugh as I seemed to see humanity reflected in a circus mirror – distorted and bulging hilariously. The bright colour stopped them being grotesque; instead they became sex-clowns.

    Without delving into psychoanalysis (tho I’m a fan of Anais Nin), I cannot help but disagree with the tenor of your argument, Michael. No disrespect intended, as I think there are manifold ways of eating Art.

    For you, the problem seems to be the apolitical (which you call ‘unthinking’) approach to gender, i.e. your analysis is bluntly feminist. “Why does Soi not present these women in a less degrading light? Why does he represent them as mere sex objects? Is there not more to women than titty?”

    Instinctively, these Soi pictures remind me of British artist Beryl Cook: http://www.berylcook.org
    If your connection allows, have a flick thru her prints. Her women are juicily voluptuous in an everyday way. This is British ‘fish & chips sex’ – unidealised, funny, human.
    I’m not sure, but I don’t think she has been slammed for being sexist, though her paintings undoubtedly sexify women in an analogous way.
    Besides musing over the fact that Beryl Cook started her painting career in Africa (an irrelevant coincidence perhaps), note what she says, quoted atop her ‘biog’ section on the site: “‘I DON’T KNOW HOW MY PICTURES HAPPEN, THEY JUST DO. THEY EXIST, BUT FOR THE LIFE OF ME I CAN’T EXPLAIN THEM.’”

    This is a similar sentiment to that which you criticise in Soi: “I don’t think about it, I just draw what I see.”

    What is wrong with that?
    The feminist replies: “Women have put up with this crap for long enough. Didn’t you know there’s a gender war on at the moment?”
    Perhaps, but there is more degrading art out there, that would be worthy of such criticism. And, perhaps, not everyone sees the world in such stark ‘gender-war’ terms.

    You say that Soi is a ‘political’ artist. If we have to label Soi (bad habit there) can we not call him ‘a social observer’?
    The trouble with politics, is that [to paraphrase Nin] “we do not see politics as they are, we see them as we are”.
    You are imposing your stern gender politics onto the rich tapestry of a highly-sexualised life that Soi portrays so vividly and amusingly.

    Michael, you are interested in psychoanalysis. Sex is at the centre of life, no?
    Soi’s Omari is at the centre of a world of sex, race and power, but he is enjoying it. He could be a liberator, or a denier, but he is not – he is Omari the lover.

    And the women – are they really so weak and ‘objectified’? They look quite big and imposing to me. Perhaps objects of sex fantasy in their bigness, but also active agents in their own right. Check google images for a wider range of Soi’s representations of women than those shown in this article. You see women manipulating men, crushing them, engaged in lesbian gropes, enjoying sex.
    As it is, in the world, “the way things really are” (!)

    I will raise a glass to Soi tonight and I hope, Michael, that we can get you drunk too and laugh a little together.

    Respects to the Kenyan brethren and sisdren! May you live long and colourful!

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