Artist Spotlight: Ng’endo Mukii
In the car, Ng’endo’s niece talks about a boy in her class. Everytime she brings him up, he is described as ‘Half-American’. The reason for being the popular kid in school was because he was half white. Mukii realized that the topic she wanted to research for her graduate dissertation had infiltrated her homestead, serving as the microcosm for a Kenyan, and eventual global, experience with skin bleaching.
The voices of three generations of women find their way in the award-winning documentary animation Yellow Fever. After researching the topic of skin lightening, Ng’endo Mukii chose to indulge emotional reason in lieu of statistics. Mukii takes a softer stance, preferring to challenge those who create and sustain these beauty ideals. Instead of attacking the victims of these unachievable standards of beauty, it is time to address the lack of celebration of women of all appearances.
Mukii’s latest film Nairobi Berries, which has won the #ImmersiveEncounters #GrandPrix at the Encounters Short Film Festival, provides immersive experiences in a surrealist dreamscape that operates in a fourth dimension of spatial storytelling. The viewer is hauled into a divergent, atypical actuality. Using Virtual Reality as a mode of storytelling, Mukii notes, “Virtual reality allows you to explore space that you don’t explore on a flat film. There is almost a freedom or a conversion of the element of time that you don’t have in a 2D or 3D film.”
Virtual reality is a not-long-past medium for storytelling. Unlike other communication mediums like literature and comics that subsist in a two-dimensional space, Nairobi Berries is set in a four-dimensional space that retains the appeal and power to evoke the imagination and connect it to a familiar reality. Mukii wields a poetic composition, submerging the audience in the pigment of water, light and narrative of her relationship with Nairobi in the depth of an juxtaposed dreamscape.
Ng’endo Mukii’s films and artworks are intricate pieces of mixed-media where hand-drawn animation is combined with computer animation, pixilation and live action. Born in Kenya, she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, and Royal College of Art in London, UK. Now spending her time between Nairobi and Tsavo, Mukii works internationally as a mixed-media filmmaker, animator and editor.
Wacera: Your film shows a connection between societal pressures that license skin lightening, the constant media messages that white is pure, and the apt criminalisation of lightening products in the market. What did you learn from the conversations that emerged after sharing Yellow Fever?
Ng’endo: A few years ago after releasing Yellow Fever, I received Facebook messages from one woman from a Middle Eastern country. She wanted to do rhinoplasty because she felt her appearance was unattractive. She said that she was really glad that she came across my film. I don’t know if eventually she decided to do it. Everytime she was looking on TV and all the social pointers she was receiving in her life, they were telling her that she was unattractive because of this one feature that she has.
When you talk about white people in Swahili, mzungu, there is no relation to their skin color. We haven’t identified ourselves as being black people, until quite recently. Like, someone is mweusi (black in Swahili). It’s not innate in the language. We were identifying along ethnic information, which is more subtle than someone has brown skin or white skin, which I find very superficial.
My perspective is that as soon as you are using certain languages to describe certain groups of people as white and black, it’s already a racist statement. White already has a subtext to purity, being close to God, there’s an ideology around the use of white. Even when women are getting married, the use of white is very specific. [Society wants] women to be virgins, even if they are not - to have the presentation of being virgins and having purity. So even those still getting married and aren’t virgins are expected to wear white. It’s like an offence not to wear white.
I believe the use of black on a group of people to describe them is racist because there is already a history of evil, dark, almost demonic connotations of being black. Even Africa was called the dark continent for a very specific reason. [and] its inhabitants were called black also for a very specific reason.
I was debating with someone online about how, in Germany, if you are riding the train and you haven’t paid, you are called Schwarzfahrer which means a black passenger. They were debating whether it is racist or not. Someone said well it cannot be racist because you know there are all these things that already have connotations with the word black. The Black Plague, now this black passenger, the black of night, the black market… the word black has all these connotations.
I agree that the word black already has several connotations of illegality, doom, darkness and disease on it. [But] the fact that this word was applied to an entire group of people is racist in itself, because you are choosing the word for a reason. So I can’t be on the train without being a black passenger, whether I have paid or not. So I’m always a black passenger and in Germany that means I’m always avoiding fares, even if I have paid. The more that I’ve looked at how this idea of race has divided people into different categories, it’s very immature. Somehow scientists were able to convince the entire planet that we have categories called race, and put people in one called black.
Wacera: You titled Yellow Fever after Fela Kuti’s song with the same title. Your work is a deliberate inquisition of why black women bleach, and Kuti criticised women who bleach. With different passionate ideas coming through from conception to execution, how do you get rid of bias and stay devoted to the work’s purpose?
Ng’endo: When you are dealing with your family in your film, it becomes personal. I’m not pointing at women who are bleaching their skin who I met on the street, or somewhere else through someone. These are people who I care about. I don’t think I’ll be talking about them the way Fela Kuti was. The reason I use the title is to reflect back on that song for the people who know it. He wrote it decades ago, and the topic is still as relevant today. I don’t want to have his perspective of pointing fingers and making accusations. I feel that’s also a masculine reaction to something that is seen as a woman’s problem.
I wanted to have a more humanistic approach to “What is the problem of the society?”. It is not a woman’s problem. The society is telling women something specific. Women are bleaching their skin because they know it’s going to make a difference in their lives. They are going to have better partners, job promotions.
If you are wearing a weave, wearing an afro or dreadlocks, it can affect your career path depending on what line of work you are in, and how provincial minded the people who are employing you are. Obviously if you are making these changes and everyone is just pointing at you saying how fake you are, but at the same time you are getting promotions and being celebrated for being attractive, you are sending very conflicting messages to women in society. So this is not a women’s problem, this is a societal problem. That’s the reason I use the title to Fela Kuti’s song; to try to get people to look at it differently.
Wacera: Nairobi Berries is a dreamscape where you use space to engage and sustain surrealism using VR, in the African context. What does Nairobi mean to you?
Ng’endo: The title of the film is pointing to the term Nairobbery. We are all doing whatever we are doing in the city because we think we are going to rip fruit from Nairobi; the Nairobi berries. We are all participating in this patriarchy within a hierarchy of finance willing to do Nairobbery, practice corruption, willing to do whatever. That’s why all these characters are running around, aggressively chasing each other and fighting each other. I do play with space in the scope of VR, but I’m looking at the space of the city in social terms.
At first when I was trying to make the film, I had not yet written the poem. I talked with my producers and told them that I wanted to show different parts of the city. [and] as soon as you’re making a film about Nairobi, people almost feel like it’s not authentic if you’re not including Kibera. [but] Kibera is not my life. There are times that I have gone into Kibera to do quite specific stuff. I don’t hang out in Kibera. I wanted to feature Ng’ong Hills, but I go to Ng’ong Hills once or twice a year. So it’s not my life.
Once I wrote the poem and started to address the visuals from that perspective, that meant that I was able to make my own vision of Nairobi that was completely free of this social construct of what people understand Nairobi to be, and it can be my own personal space. The water represents how I feel in the space.
Initially, I did debate calling my film Nairoberry. I wrote the poem and then created the imagery to reflect on the poetry, and also for the film to be independently standing free from the poetry. There are really beautiful parts in the poem that really feed me, that make me really happy to be part of the city. [and] then there are the other parts that are really difficult, the darkness that exists in our city that is always on the edge.
No matter where you live, even if you live in a really economically advanced neighbourhood, you are most likely living near a slum. Lavington suburbs neighbour Kawangware slum, Kileleshwa suburbs neighbour Kariokor slums, Karen suburbs neighbour parts of Dagoretti. We are always living side-by-side because we depend on each other.
I didn’t want to call the film Nairoberry because the reason we have Nairoberry is because we believe we are going to get something. [and] when you do get the fruits of the city, they are extremely beautiful. The fact that there is still space in the city to bask and relax, and it is beautiful. You can’t do that in many European cities, because it’s difficult to access open spaces, and you have to be extremely wealthy and such related factors. However, we get that access in expense of other people.
Wacera: A thing that I really admire about your films is how poetic allegory plays such a major role in your reel. Is it important for you to hold your own voice within the work?
Ng’endo: I enjoy writing poetry. A lot of what I write comes from a personal space, so it feels quite natural for me to be the one that reads it. The memories in Yellow Fever are my own. The poetry in Yellow Fever are the conclusions I’m coming to from the process of making the film. They are my own thoughts and that’s why they are in my voice. In Nairobi Berries, my experience with Nairobi is written from my own perspective. I use my voice in the poem because this is my experience. I understand that it is not everyone’s experience - I do not want to paint it as if it is.
My sister and I have had the same upbringing. It doesn’t mean she sees Nairobi in the same exact way that I do. There is one line I wrote, “I love you most, at midday, as I drink masala and do not hear the screams of women I cannot help thrashing in the darkness”. That is based on my experience last year. Twice, I heard women screaming in the middle of the night. This year, I heard gunshots and someone screaming after. I called the police because I thought to myself it’s too much. They take the information down, but I have no idea whether they respond. Of course I’m not getting out of my house to go and get shot as well. The screams were near my house - for me to go out there is to do what?
So you are stuck in this place. [and] then in the morning you wake up and continue with your daily tasks. The afternoon comes, I enjoy drinking masala tea, basking by the grass, enjoying myself and the freedom that I have in this space separated from other people. So I’m enjoying Nairobi for a very specific reason. [Because] I’m not dealing with traffic, I’m not dealing with the discomfort of how our bodies are compressed with each other in a matatu (a 14-seater public service vehicle). The seat is for three people and a fourth passenger is asking why you are not making space for them. I’m not dealing with that compression, at that particular moment.
One of the things about my films is that you can tell someone that I’ve made a film about skin bleaching. [but] when they watch Yellow Fever, that is not what they are expecting. If you told people my film is about skin bleaching, they expect a really serious documentary with numbers and information. There are no numbers in my film! I’m not giving you any statistics on how people use bleaching products or how big the industry is, as it’s not what I’m looking at. I’m looking at the emotional reason we bleach. Same thing with Nairobi Berries. I’m not telling you how many people are murdered or police brutality statistics. I am still telling you that I wake up in the night and hear women screaming. [and] that for me, it doesn’t matter how many numbers you throw at me. The feeling I had that night, I can’t put a number to that feeling.
Wacera: In your photo series Untitled Labour Series, you present your black skin as your canvas. Is it for reclamation?
Ng’endo: I don’t feel like I’m reclaiming black skin in that particular series. I’m the one posing in the photos. I wanted the subject to be someone local, because the series was about raising awareness about human trafficking. I was interested in focusing in the ways in which the body is distorted with the daily tasks people have to do. The images show people carrying kuni (firewood in Swahili), carrying mitungis (heavy flasks in Swahili) of water.
These are things people do, not even once a day, several times a day, because there is no infrastructure to support them so that they don’t have to be doing this. It happens all over… like, outside of my house, there are always children carrying water back to their houses because they are not connected to the water system. Carrying kuni. I was exploring the topic and it had to do with the body. I was focusing more on the compression of the body under this daily acts that we don’t consider them to be abusive. They are very normalised.
a creature inhuman.
A crushed soul.
It rolls back,
Inverting the body into itself.
Spasms of muscle,
heaves of lung,
crackle of joints.
Disappear along sinews
of a wordless tongue.
Yellow Fever on Vimeo
Nairobi Berries trailer on Vimeo
Untitled Labour photo series