Joe Konieczny is a Toronto based writer and creator whose practice can best be described as deep learning. In his writing, this takes the form of meticulously researched and contextualized historiographies of artists and institutions on the African continent. Recent and upcoming works include a memorializing of the late curator Okwui Enwezor, analysis of works by Myriam Syowia Kyambi and Bulelwa Madekurozwa, and a forthcoming manuscript on the 2022 edition of Rencontres de Bamako. Joe’s creation is informed by meditative research on the intersections of postmodern cultural theory, Marxist political critique, and a fascination with the apocalyptic potential of new technologies. Created with a mix of archival film, machine learning logic, and non-visual technologies, Joe’s works push the boundaries of formal visual analysis by attempting to propose a new and more inclusive archive informed by his anticolonial politics.

Outside of his personal practice, Joe has held a range of institutional experiences. As half of the curatorial braintrust Serious Curators Against Monotony (S.C.A.M.) he has worked with groups including Toronto-based Silverfish Magazine and the Joan and Martin Goldfarb Study Centre at York University. Joe is a facilitation assistant for Ways of Attuning, a study group at the Critical Distance Centre for Curators, a manager for the Avrom Yanovsky Teaching Collection, and an independent art critic. He is always looking for collaborations, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.



Joe Konieczny Projects


Toronto / Tkaronto based artist, curator, and historian.

Find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Google Scholar.

Get in touch:
joe [at] joekonieczny [dot] com

Gallery Confrontations: Tracking “Rose” Through the Performance Art of Myriam Syowia Kyambi


Introduction

Efforts to decolonize and expand existing art historical canons have led to a surge of interest in contemporary African display cultures among Western institutions. Miriam Syowia Kyambi, a Kenyan and German multi-media and performance artist born in 1979, who currently operates out of Nairobi, has been at the forefront of this renewed multiculturalism, with works in major collections belong to heavyweights like former Frieze chief Robert Devereux, the Kouvola Art Museum in Finland, and the Goethe Institute.[1] Kyambi’s performance works are particularly renowned, through relatively understudied compared to similarly accomplished artists from the West. Often performed in multiple galleries and renewed contexts, the artist is known for engaging onlookers in moments which are both confrontational and caring in nature.

Through Kyambi’s iterative process, the character Rose has begun to take shape. Rose is first named in the artist’s most iconic performance, Fracture (i) (2011). She makes more appearances both in Fracture (i)’s reperformances across the globe, as well as in 2015’s Rose’s Relocation, though her beginnings are seen in other iconic works by the artist such as WoMen, Fraulein, Damsel, and Me and Beauty and the Norm. What precious few sources exist analyzing these works from an academic perspective paint the figure as a kind of postcolonial avatar, an ontological Gundam which the artist is able to access and equip.[2] Yet a reconsideration of Kyambi’s own statements begs a reading of Rose’s performances in the context of extraction and consumption. In her conceptual writing regarding Fracture (i), Kyambi calls upon the complicated histories of capital and labour within East Africa to create an artistic justification for her dramatic performance.

Analytical Frameworks

Two major artistic theories of performance structure this newfound analysis of Miriam Syowia Kyambi’s performance pieces. Myron Beasley’s conception of performance as possibility, stemming from his analysis of African diasporic artists in Haiti, is particularly salient.[3] This analytical framework, first applied to the work of Leah Gordon and later on other diasporic art happenings such as the Ghetto Biennale, suggests that the moment of discomfort and unease within a performance represents a “space of unsettling possibility” in Beasley’s words.[4] Rose is a character who very much embodies these ephemeral themes, and as will be shown there are a multitude of moments within her performances that may be seen as representative of this potentially confrontational dynamic.

            Drawing from Performance Studies and Affect Theory, Richard Schechner’s somewhat dated albeit ever-relevant theory of “twice performed behavior” will provide the basis for a second mode of viewing. Described in his 1985 canonical tome Between Theater and Anthropology, “twice performed behavior” conceptualizes performance as the enaction of behaviors which may be repeated and conjoined.[5] These affective building blocks provide create an emotional and immersive environment which prompts the onlooker to suspend their own disbelief in the unreality of the performance. Kyambi’s performances with Rose, Fracture (i) in particular, rely upon a built foundation of communicated dislocation and despair. Yet importantly to Schechner’s theories, as further detailed by Osita Okagbue and Samuel Kasule in their review Theatre and Performance in East Africa, these affective creations represent a singular broadcast which may be interpreted and contextualized by the unique experiences and epistemic positioning of the interpretant.[6]

A semiotic model which is inclusive of Schecher, Okagbue, Kasule, and Beasely might understand key moments of Kyambi’s performances as a combination of affective communication and possibility. As will be shown in Rose’s essential appearances from the artist’s recent works, it is Kyambi’s ability to harmonize a mourning of capital’s excessive and extractive legacy with the potentiality for a final confrontation with oppressive forces or break from the past altogether that makes her performances so engaging.

Fracture (i): Juxtaposing Forgiveness and Brutal Excess

            First performed in Finland in 2016, Rose’s introduction in Fracture (i) serves as Kyambi’s most iconic performance to this date, and the one most closely associated with her brand as an emerging African artist in European markets. From the opening moments of the presentation, Kyambi’s allusions to capitalist excess are plainly apparent. Dressed in a sisal costumed inspired by weaving techniques popular among the Akamba people indigenous to the southeastern counties of Kenya, Kyambi begins to awaken and sway.[7] Numbering around 4.6 million, the Akamba is a relatively large group that has seen their culture industrialized and exported. This sisal weaving in particular has come to be closely associated with handbags known in Swahili as Kiondo, which are often created for low wages in stifling conditions before their export to European and American markets as tchotchkes and novelties. The sisal itself is representative of an extractive history, as the plant was traditionally harvested on brutal colonial plantations which denied African people agency and freedom.[8] Pacing around the gallery space, Kyambi’s sisaled representation of extractive capital begins to collect objects from the gallery floor.

Covering her head and masking what little remains of her original identity in this performative and primal state, Kyambi begins to dramatize her movements, stomping widely across the gallery. As she approaches the staged urns, Kyambi’s character stomps on the ground, smashing the pottery and releasing blood and paint across the gallery floor. With these destructive movements, Kyambi forces the audience into a confrontation with the dynamics of violence and demise. The anonymity provided by this garment is particularly important in Kyambi’s own discourses on the work, representing the identity-less collaborators of international capital that have broken and bled the Kenyan economy.[9] The site of Fracture (i) is highly relevant to the work’s interpretation here- in performances across Northern Europe such as 2015’s iterations in Brussels and Paris this figure of colonial violence may be considered as representative of the class interests of the audience themselves.

Yet if this masked figure of sisal and blood represents an economic id, Rose’s phoenix-like birth from the ashes of embodied capital surely represents its foil. After minutes of dazed rest, Rose awakens and begins to clean herself with a bucket of water and sponge on the gallery floor. Washing may be seen as both restorative and preparatory action, and it appears that Rose’s first affect is to express a profound regret for allowing the monster of capital to rage. Evocative of a postcolonial hangover, Rose sits at her newly placed vanity and contemplates the destruction she has brought into the space. As if she is suddenly aware of a need to perform modernity, Rose shifts into a nervous preparation, combing her hair and applying lipstick before pacing awkwardly around the gallery.

In her final and most communicative form, Rose attempts to walk among the patrons and speak to them, occasionally falling to the ground or taking time to stare directly into the white cube of the gallery. When Rose revisits the site of blood and destruction, she appears mournful, and works to slowly repair and relocate the objects. Each movement of Kyambi’s performance engages in a new layer of what Schechner would have considered affective building blocks- beginning from her nervous creation to public display of regret.[10] Both rehearsed and improvised, a show which is both reactive and confrontational in nature heavily relies upon these moments of “twice performed” behavior to create communicative pathways to the audience. It is precisely because of how well-rehearsed and conceptualized the most emotional moments of Rose’s emergence are that Kyambi’s departure from the script and ad lib interactions with the audience hold so much weight.

Here is the place where Beasley’s analysis becomes most salient- it is in Rose’s attempts to connect with the gallery patrons and space that the character represents her true potential.[11] This uncomfortable breaking of the fourth wall and invocation of regret on behalf of the audience’s own epistemology creates a direct confrontation between the physical and emotional bodies of the colonized and the will of the colonial power. A clearly dazed and uncomfortable audience looks stunned to exist in this third space, where the oft alluded to but seemingly impossible conflict comes into reality. In the initial moments that Rose walks into the audience, they back away almost in a reactive fear of encountering the colonized other. In contrast to the cloaked figure of destruction, Rose represents an earnest character who aims to impress the audience. The same intoxicating resilience and hope that attracts many artists and collectors to cosmopolitan East Africa’s display cultures are plainly visible. Stumbling over herself, Rose may represent more than just the possibility for confrontation and repair from the colonial state, but even harmony and relations with the former aggressors themselves. Her cleaning of another character’s mess exists as a peace offering, an imagined possibility of collegial relations between those benefiting in the imperial core, and those alienated by capital’s most excessive tendencies.


Rose’s Relocation: From Constraint to Movement

First exhibited in Berlin, Rose’s second appearance more directly confronts themes of dislocation and capitalism. A video collage drawn from the schizophrenic experience of a Kenyan life motivated by both capitalist ideals and an indigenous value system that Kyambi artfully labels communal identity.[12] This bifurcated performance considers Rose’s place as an outsider in the West. Set in Metz, a small town in rural France, Rose’s Relocation takes the titular character around public places. As Rose considers her surroundings, the viewer is greeted with fading visions of her mother’s home, a working-class place in Nairobi. Each ‘African’ image is presented in a golden frame, which both works to add perceived value to the image compared to the performer’s current existence, as well as recalling popular home décor styles in the Nairobi area throughout Kyambi’s childhood.[13]

The affective building blocks envisioned by Schechner are highly relevant to understanding Rose’s re-emergence across the continent in a provincial French town. Much of Rose’s behavior can be considered a repetition from Fracture (i), recalling the author’s conception of “twice-performed behavior.”[14] Behavioral and visual cues recall the effectivity of Rose’s previous iteration. A pile of white netted blankets on Kyambi’s mother’s couch in montage with a stuttering old French man on cobblestone streets instantly reminds the viewer of the warped figure of capitalism covering itself in sisal weaving. Yet here the folds of yarn work represent domestic bliss and safety amid a rapidly capitalizing Kenyan lifestyle that flies in the face of traditional values. Dissonance is a key theme in Rose’s Relocation. In another moment, Rose looks towards the camera framed by a bridal dress shop in the back, while windows wrought with begin to fade into view. Trapped in a small town within the imperial core, Rose appears imprisoned by the expectations of white society, a culture which the character was non-consensually sent away too by the demands of a Kenyan society which Rose sees as safe in most other frames of this and other works.

Kyambi’s use of eye contact in her performance is an essential part of her emotional communication, and key to understanding its power and significance. As Osita Okagbue and Samuel Kasule state in their survey of East African performance- spectacle has always retained a functional element in the Kenyan art scene.[15] Certainly, Kyambi is no different from her colleagues in this regard. It is through her determined glare and wayward glances that the performer is able to communicate her changed significance in this more modern context. In this Beasleyan performance of possibility, Rose has transcended her grieving for a precapitalist Kenya, and decided to orient herself within a capitalist life.[16] By recalling her past as she walks across the city, newly confident in her surroundings, Rose juxtaposes a solemn morning for the potential of an alternative East African society while embracing the reality of her life in the belly of the colonial beast. Kyambi states that living as an artist overseas has been seen as both a great accomplishment and a great burden among her associates, but that her peers and colleagues in Berlin and Chicago are unable to recognize the unique circumstances the expat finds herself in.[17]

Ongoing Confrontation

            Though Rose is most apparent in Fracture (i) and Rose’s Relocation, the affective elements of which the character is comprised have appeared in myriad performances by Kyambi. WoMen, Fräulein Damsel & Me may be read as a creative ancestor to the Rose project, referencing the artists "mental entrapment with Kenya’s colonial past” and in particular its manifestations within the interpersonal.[18] This installation involved many of the same structural elements which can be seen in Rose’s final two appearances. However, in this work the elements that eventually come to form Rose are far more confrontational and violent. Death and restriction are more freely explored than in later works, with the use of red string being a particular outlier in the 2013 performance.[19] Reticent of conspiratorial tropes, Kyambi pins the red fibers to colonial maps framed by barbed wire. Trapped in an immersive rotunda of colonial geography, Kyambi has no choice but to claw and beg at the ground.

            Contemporary exhibitions by Kyambi have further explored other concepts introduced in early performances, and 2019’s The Green Gold is a historical and research-based installation that more directly confronts the extractive legacy of Sisal production. A mixed video and sculpture work, Kyambi weaves the chords of thread into braids that almost recall bundles of hair. According to the artist, this weaving represents the direct bodily contribution of African people to European economic gains particularly in the early 20th century. The explicit lack of embodiment is notable as well- reflecting histories of erasure of the physical and laborious contributions to industrialization by members of the diaspora. Kyambi compares indigenous to imported sisal, noting the violent histories involved in their movement.

            If one is to believe Schechner, Okagbue, and Kasule, this repeated performance may take on a unique meaning in the context of Africanity, particularly related to its social salience.[20][21] While performance in the Western context has traditionally been though of as a ritual, in the East African context it often represents a single facet of an ongoing process.[22] This process, which in Kyambi’s case has come to create multiple sustained places of possibility and creativity, is essential to the process of interpersonal and artistic decolonization. It is through the third space of imagination and confrontation that both Miriam Kyambi herself and gallery onlookers are able to directly look upon and confront physical manifestations of colonial power. Through embodied performance and choreographed destruction, the gallery space becomes the site of final resolution for our individual colonial melodramas.

Conclusion

            Through aforementioned performances, Rose’s position as an avatar of Kyambi’s efforts towards decolonial practice has been solidified. The very spaces created by this character serve as a reminder to the viewer that our own work towards destruction and decolonization of the western canon has only just begun. As recognition of East African art and artists continues to grow, Rose is sure to make many reappearances in gallery spaces around the world.


Works Cited

“About - Syowia Kyambi,” August 1, 2020. https://syowiakyambi.com/about/.

Beasley, Myron M. “Curatorial Studies on the Edge: The Ghetto Biennale, a Junkyard, and the Performance of Possibility.” Journal of Curatorial Studies 1, no. 1 (2012): 65–81. https://doi.org/10.1386/jcs.1.1.65_1.

———. “Performing Refuge/Restoration.” Performance Research 22, no. 1 (2017): 75–81.

———. “The Performance of Possibilities.” Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti, 2010, 107–16.

Le Monde.fr. “« Body Talk », l’art des féminismes en Afrique,” February 16, 2015. https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2015/02/16/body-talk-l-art-des-feminismes-en-afrique_4577352_3212.html.

Coombes, Annie E. “Mining the Archive, Mapping the Future: Violence and Memory in the Work of Miriam Syowia Kyambi,” 10–25. Nairobi, Kenya: Goethe Institute Kenya, 2014. https://www.goethe.de/ins/ke/en/kul/sup/21455915.html.

———. “Photography against the Grain: Rethinking the Colonial Archive in Kenyan Museums.” World Art 6, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 61–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/21500894.2015.1126853.

Cremieux, Anne, Xavier Lemoine, and Jean-Paul Rocchi. Understanding Blackness through Performance Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Eyre, Hermione. “Collector Robert Devereux on the Power of African Art.” Sothebys.com, March 12, 2018. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/collector-robert-devereux-on-the-power-of-african-art.

Okagbue, Osy A, and Samuel Kasule. Theatre and Performance in East Africa, 2021. http://www.vlebooks.com/vleweb/product/openreader?id=none&isbn=9781351996174.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Simbao, Ruth, William B. Miko, Eyitayo Tolulope Ijisakin, Romuald Tchibozo, Masimba Hwati, Kristin NG-Yang, Patrick Mudekereza, et al. “Reaching Sideways, Writing Our Ways: The Orientation of the Arts of Africa Discourse.” African Arts 50, no. 2 (2017): 10–29. https://doi.org/10.1162/AFAR_a_00341.









[1] Eyre, “Collector Robert Devereux on the Power of African Art.”

[2] Simbao et al., “Reaching Sideways, Writing Our Ways.”

[3] Beasley, “Curatorial Studies on the Edge.”

[4] Beasley, “The Performance of Possibilities.”

[5] Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology.

[6] Okagbue and Kasule, Theatre and Performance in East Africa.

[7] “About - Syowia Kyambi.”

[8] Cremieux, Lemoine, and Rocchi, Understanding Blackness through Performance Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity.

[9] Coombes, “Mining the Archive, Mapping the Future.”

[10] Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology.

[11] Beasley, “Performing Refuge/Restoration.”

[12] “About - Syowia Kyambi.”

[13] “About - Syowia Kyambi.”

[14] Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology.

[15] Okagbue and Kasule, Theatre and Performance in East Africa.

[16] Beasley, “Curatorial Studies on the Edge.”

[17] “« Body Talk », l’art des féminismes en Afrique.”

[18] Coombes, “Mining the Archive, Mapping the Future.”

[19] Coombes, “Photography against the Grain.”

[20] Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology.

[21] Okagbue and Kasule, Theatre and Performance in East Africa.

[22] Beasley, “Performing Refuge/Restoration.”
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