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Nairobi-based artist Namikoye Wanjala may be a new name on the Shanghai art scene, but they (the artist uses the pronoun “they”) topped the list of independent curator and fellow Kenyan Michael Muli for quite some time now. Currently, Muli is showcasing the work of the second artist in his ambitious ten-part series African Contemporary Digital Art, and here he shares how he was won over by Namikoye’s black and white self-portraits and how they affect us all.

How did the exhibition come about? Where does the concept come from?

As Covid hit the world, I found myself longing for a connection to the art spaces and art in general of [my home country] Kenya. However, I was in Shanghai with no way to return home without turning my life upside down, so I contacted the arts community in Kenya. It was then that I had the idea to organize digital art exhibitions from Africa here in China.

Who is the artist? What quality do you see in their work (the artist prefers the pronoun ‘they’) that makes you want to show them in China?

Namikoye Wanjala is a traveling multidisciplinary artist based in Nairobi whose self-reflective works focus on sexuality, mental health and their own experiences. This is the second artist that I present in Shanghai. The main objective is to present artists whose art uses black bodies as the centerpiece of conversations about things in life – like emotions and mental well-being among other struggles that anyone may face. .

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You are a full-time freelance curator and environmental engineer from Kenya and have been living in China since 2017 – do you think these identities affect the way you organize exhibitions?

I think so in many ways. Growing up I had this affinity for art and tried pieces of everything from playing musical instruments like guitar and piano to painting, drawing and sculpture. I never really had that spark, you know, like the inherent genius of being able to create – but I always felt close to art.

After a long hiatus during my undergraduate studies, I began to find myself in art spaces and realize that there is so much to do on the art scene that goes beyond creating. I discovered that I was able to help artists communicate what their art is and guide audiences through the artist’s journey through their works and experiences. My background as an engineer also helps me structure the exhibitions, so I focus more on making everything as perfect as possible while talking to the artist and making sure his visions come to fruition.

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What did curation processes usually look like? How involved were the artists since most of them couldn’t be here in person?

It depends on the artists. Some I have spoken to would see more or less what they have in their repertoire to use for the exhibit, while others are very excited and say they need some time to create some fair art. for this particular exhibition. Ultimately, it’s the artists who provide their artwork and I provide the vision for how the artwork will be placed on the walls and how people can move around and interact with them.

Let’s dig deeper into the technical details. What techniques does Namikoye use?

They all have a very dreamy quality. These are all photographs that the artist took of themselves. Namiyoke used a camera with a slow shutter speed and double exposure to achieve the blurry, dreamy effect you see in some of the works.

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There is a “correct” order for viewing the exhibit as you’ve organized it, which provides a self-discovery narrative that anyone can relate to. Can you briefly talk about what storytelling is and why it’s important to see the show in a certain order?

I especially encourage people to look at the art from start to finish of the exhibit without looking at the headlines or the intro, so they can just take the imagery and see what is on their mind. And then, in the second round, I’ll tell the viewer what the artist is trying to portray and see if it matches their own thoughts.

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The story is about transition and times of transition. Going through the first few rooms, you feel that the imagery is shaken and distorted, and it comes from a point where you feel like you’ve been knocked off balance by something. In photos six and seven you go through all this hustle and bustle of change and that’s when you come to terms with the fact that change is happening and you might as well follow it. From this point the images go from very spectral imagery to more defined imagery, so through chunks 12 and 13 you get this crisp imagery that makes it look like something is being rebuilt from there. from the ashes of the previous version of yourself. But instead of ending this exhibition with a crisp image, the final piece is again blurry. However, it doesn’t have the anxiety that other plays had before – it’s more positive and can fill your heart with hope. This means that instead of focusing on being the best version of ourselves, it’s often best to accept the fact that we’re constantly subject to change.

What is your favorite piece in this exhibition? Why?

I love part number 13. It’s like the moment before you are completely formed into a new version of yourself, but it’s not the final version and there will never be a final version. It’s the closest you can get to perfection and I like it.

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If you had to sum up this exhibition in one word or one sentence, what is the exhibition about?

A word I would say “spectral”. And one sentence, I would say the exhibit sums up the human condition when it comes to transformation and how it affects us all at different stages of our lives.

You can see Muli Namikoye’s exhibition: African Contemporary Digital Art at La Cava de Laoma until it closes on Tuesday, September 28. Free entry.

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