Ato Malinda. On Fait Ensemble, film still from video, 2010. Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery.
Ato Malinda is a dynamic artist who has gained international prominence for her performance and video works. She has exhibited in major African biennials and triennials (Dak’Art, Luanda, Afriperforma, Doual’Art), as well as in museum group exhibitions. As the 2016 Armory Show was coming to a close, Ato and I got a chance to catch up and discuss her invitation to participate in Focus: African Perspectives, her experience of exhibiting at one of the largest commercial fairs for contemporary art, and the vision for the next phase of her artistic practice.
Joseph Underwood | Though I’d like to address a few aspects of your practice, let’s begin with the reason we’re both in New York this weekend: the Armory Show. What do you see it signifying? What does the Armory Show stand for?
Ato Malinda | I started my career not necessarily being a commercial artist, and I didn’t do any fairs actually. I began participating just three years ago, contributing with drawings and being quite successful financially. So when Yvette [Mutumba] and Julia [Grosse] asked me to be a part of the Armory, I thought, “That’s a prestigious art fair…” and it was wonderful, but I also really had to think about what I was going to show. I didn’t think that sending my drawings would work in this context. They’re not a major representation of my practice, and I wanted to do something really different.
JU | The Armory operates on such a large, chaotic scale, but Focus: African Perspectives did offer a respite of cohesion. If Yvette and Julia hadn’t been the ones organizing this curated section of fourteen galleries, do you think you would have approached it in the same way?
AM | No. The fair is just so big and I only work with one gallery: Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi. I don’t know that Circle would have applied. Even if Danda [Jaroljmek, Gallery Director] had done so, I think the gallery might have gotten lost amongst all the others. Having Focus specialized on Africa can be seen as a hindrance as well as a pro. I think for our first time, this is the way it had to happen.
JU | Did you have hesitations about participating?
AM | No, I think it’s quite interesting. Have you read V.Y. Mudimbe’s African Art as a Question Mark? I find it so apt having moved to Texas at fifteen then back to Nairobi at twenty-two. I feel that it was only then that I was considered an “African” artist. Had I stayed in the United States, I would have been a North American artist. In moving, my identity really came to include practicing as an “African” artist. Since then, it has been the crux of my whole career, which has been almost exclusively African-focused exhibitions. It’s sort of the go-to, “Do you need an African artist? Here are a couple you can choose from.”
JU | That is still a question surrounding the Dak’Art Biennale in that it is limited to “African” artists. In recent iterations, the curators have tried to be global in their definition of an African, including artists from Brazil, for example. But this question of the “African artist” persists. Is it a self-ghettoizing label?
AM | But I don’t think it’s self-imposed. I think it comes from the “other”—and I hate to use that term—but it comes from the Western canon trying to incorporate someone. But at the same time that it employs a categorized incorporation, it’s inherently limiting to that person.
JU | I think we’re still operating from the standpoint that scholars or curators want to point out what is unique about that person, in order to justify adding them back into the canon. Since we are missing the African elements, they want to apply the label “African” as the reason for their inclusion now.
AM | But do you really? Can’t you just incorporate them without the label?
JU | The question is in how we can change the textbooks or headlines. They’re looking for a marker to point to, to say what is different about the new version. To be able to say, “This one is updated because we’ve added in our African artists, we’ve added in our female artists, we’ve added in our queer artists, etc.”
Coming from a point of privilege allows you to say there is no difference between different people.
— Ato Malinda
Ato Malinda. “The moment that you act as a performer, you act also as the audience of the person in front of you,”
film stills from video installation, 2016. Courtesy of the artist
AM | I understand, but a problem remains… For example, in my piece ‘The moment that you act as a performer, you act also as the audience of the person in front of you’ (2016), the two people that gave a static performance for each binary sexuality, were both heterosexual and white. I thought about it and discussed it with them, and found that they were performing equality as no difference. Coming from a point of privilege allows you to say there is no difference between different people. Everyone else who was a minority performed difference in a different way. So it’s interesting to me when these scholars or curators talk about difference, and have a need to point out that someone is unique because they are X or Y; I think it’s a bit ambiguous because I see equality as a recognition of difference. A lot of people from a point of privilege see it as everyone being the same. There’s a homogeneity. Because if you’re trying to say someone is unique and the only way you can do that is by saying, “Oh, but they are X or Y different…” I see that and that’s why I am very ambivalent about it. I see where people are trying to come from, in a desire to be inclusive. But I don’t think that’s the way it needs to be happening.
JU | This method of labeling seems relevant when discussing your art practice because of how people address your work. It doesn’t take long when reading about it to see it pushed into sub-categories: African art, LGBT art, or even art made by women. I’m wondering what you do with this pervasive terminology that labels you as a specialty interest.
AM | I feel that once you recognize difference, you have to decide on one of two next steps. One is where you amplify difference to the point of prejudice and then there’s one where you have a type of homogeneity or…maybe a better word is harmony. It’s where you can recognize someone as different from you, but that’s not going to be the crux of your interaction.
JU | Yes, and I think that’s easier to do on a one-on-one level. When you approach someone, you dissect with your gaze and your speech, picking apart a person to figure out who they are. Of course, we use ourselves as the standard, and so measure that person against ourselves to see differences. But I return to my question about categories. Let’s imagine I’m a collector coming to the Armory and I’m already used to a certain set of artists and now I have been told there’s a section, or category, of African artists. The category, or specialty label, precedes meeting any individuals.
AM | That’s how the Armory has categorized it. Each year they have this focus, whether it be Asia, Latin America, or Africa this year. However, if you were to have a fair that integrated people. What would that be then?
JU | …an art fair?
AM | laughs
JU | Based on my conversation with some of the other artists exhibiting here, there seems to be some semantics about identifiers at play. So I’m wondering if you see a difference in using the terminology “African Artist” versus “an artist from Africa”?
AM | I understand that outlook but then I come back to Mudimbe and the idea of Africa. What is Africa? And constantly this week, there has been a proliferation and perpetuation of Africa as… primitive. Based on the questions that I have received from the general, non-specialist attendees at the fair, they have insinuated an idea of Africa that is not the Africa I know.
JU | Do you think they brought that with them, or do you think that what was presented at the fair reinforced the idea?
AM | I think it’s the culture in the United States. This is something I was very interested in when I was a fellow at the Smithsonian. It’s the binary nature of us and them, and I think the team at the National Museum of African Art does well to dissipate this unitary idea of Africa as a country, or the dark continent, or what have you. But I think it’s within the American culture to perceive themselves as superior when saying, “Oh, you’re from Africa” in a derogatory way.
JU | Do you think what was presented by the galleries in Focus, or at the African Perspectives Symposium, served to change or challenge these perspectives?
AM | I do think it did. I think that the media program was well curated by Yvette and Julia. The panel moderated by Bisi [Silva] was very interesting. There was one question asked by an audience member to El Anatsui and Sam Nhlengethwa: “How do you feel about your work, being that it is shown primarily outside of the African continent?” It was very helpful for Bisi to clear up to the audience that there’s a different infrastructure for artwork on the African continent and it’s not always the fault of the artist that the work isn’t shown there. And I hate to talk about Africa unitarily, but I know that in Kenya the government isn’t necessarily interested in contemporary art. Business is very big in Nairobi with all the different industries that draw people’s interest. And only now are there institutions like Circle Art Gallery who are getting the business leaders more interested in collecting Kenyan art.
JU | So let’s talk a little about your own installation at the Armory Show. There is an unspoken art fair aesthetic: an open-aired booth, bright ambient light, and the glitzy table with the two chairs at the center. But the first thing I noticed is the very intentional shaping of your space. Was this a conscious decision to subvert expectations? How did you come to that ordering of space?
AM | It was a conscious decision to up-end the model of a booth…because I’m not so convinced about art fairs. It’s a culture that I find very difficult because people don’t really get to engage with the work. But I’m not a collector, and I do have to say that I think it speaks to collectors. I think that model has worked for many years, but I wanted to create an environment where people could experience my work, in a space that was different. The works that I wanted to show weren’t drawings because I wanted to show work that I spent a lot of time making. My drawings do take time to go from concept to completion but, as you can imagine, videos take a lot longer.
Ato Malinda. View of front wall of Circle Art Gallery booth, featuring Prison Sex II, video triptych, 2009.
Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery. Photo credit: Tahir Karmali.
JU | Everything was dark from the black walls and the overhead netting that blocked ambient light. The front wall featured a triptych of videos (Prison Sex II), but each screen was partitioned off in its own niche which also served to amplify each screen’s audio. It is an impressive design because of the minimal sound intrusion between screens. Behind that wall were two more video installations, one at eye-level and one that required the viewer to crouch down. The back wall was a series of backlit photographs. So what was the intended outcome in the viewer’s experience? Are you trying to seclude them, or make them feel like they’re no longer in an art fair?
AM | The idea for the installation comes from Judith Butler’s notion of coming out that asks “What do you come out into?” When you come out of something, you come out into a space that already exists and she calls it “new regions of opacity.”  That imagery sparked a black box that had an entry way. I wanted the designer, Eto Otitigbe, and myself to create an immersive environment so that people could experience the work a little more richly than just by seeing it on a wall and walking from piece to piece. As for the front wall, I talked to Eto over many Skype sessions and he came up with something that looks somewhat analogous to the prison-based subject of the work. It sort of looks cell-like, and at the same time was inspired by his thoughts on minimalist spaceships, and I believe he was also inspired by the sculptor Tony Smith.
JU | You mentioned receiving some comments couched in neo-primitivism but have there been any constructive responses to your installation?
AM | Those comments just stem from people’s own ignorance, and come from a certain culture. I’ve also gotten really good responses from certain curators. People seem to like the fact that it’s different, and it’s somewhat experimental for the cadre.
JU | Art fairs are generally viewed as a more commercial endeavor than one that produces knowledge through exhibition. Besides the obvious benefits of selling your work, have you found exhibiting in this venue to be constructive for your own art-making practice?
AM | This is the first collaboration I’ve done with Eto and we’re thinking of collaborating more. We’ve created this collective that’s just the two of us. This installation was the beginning of it and, yes, because we got such a good feedback from it, we see this as a positive direction for future work.
Ato Malinda.Representation, photograph, 2014. Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery. © Ato Malinda & Daniel Jack Lyons.
JU | Related to the work shown here and your career as a whole, there seems to be a recurring element of obfuscation. Spanning across several years from the ‘Prison Sex’ series to ‘The moment that you act as a performer, you act also as the audience of the person in front of you video’, your body as a performer is modified, or covered, or hidden. Is the hiding of one’s self a necessary part of performing?
AM | I know some people don’t even use their body—they might use their voice for example. As for me, I do have a natural inclination to paint my body. But I can’t tell you anything beyond that…
JU | It’s interesting because one prominent form of African art is the masquerade, or masquerading, which is essentially the obfuscation of the self and the taking on of an alien exterior. Does your work share principles with masquerading?
AM | When I first started performing almost ten years ago, I was volunteering with the Trust for African Rock Art which was composed of archeologists who traveled the continent. One element of their research focused on shamans who would paint their bodies and that really spoke to me. At the time, I felt that I was trying to find my identity, particularly as an African. I find now that this sentiment is somewhat disingenuous because it’s difficult for me to say that I’m only African. I think that I’m many things. But, at the time, I wanted an authenticity to my performance and I took inspiration from the shamans.
JU | What is the biggest hurdle right now in your practice?
AM | I feel like I’m trying to do too many things at once. The idea of creating ceramics is a good idea…but maybe I just need to take more time to do it. I feel like I have less time now, so I’m really trying to spend more of my days in the studio.
JU | Is this the plague of the contemporary artist or is it just part of being a contemporary human?
AM | It might just be the latter.
JU | Do you think there is a certain pressure, external or self-imposed, on artists to do everything?
AM | No, no. For me, I just get really excited about creating and I want to do so many things. Some artists just stick to what makes them money or what they know best and I think that’s great, but I really want to learn ceramics for some reason. I’m taking classes in a little town outside of Rotterdam. It’s mostly free-form work.
JU | Free-form on what scale?
AM | It varies. My first piece was a vase very heavily inspired by the work of Magdalene Odundo. Actually, it’s inspired by research I did at the Smithsonian because the ceramic arts along both coasts of the African continent were everyday objects that were primarily made by women.
JU | Tell me something about your upcoming projects.
AM | I’m working with a performance organization called Co-Lab Editions based in Berlin. I will be working with them in Copenhagen during a residency in April and I am thinking around the subject of child abuse. I’ll be collaborating with a scientist and we’re going to focus on the neuroscience behind memory. That’s all I can tell you at the moment…but it is going to culminate in a live performance.
JU | And you have another residency in Singapore later this year?
AM | I’m working with NTU CCA Singapore Residencies Program and that’s going to be two months focused on ceramics. I plan to speak with the local women and just understand their lives a little better, and then make objects that are important to them. So I want to immerse myself in the culture a little bit more.
JU | Because of the itinerant nature of the contemporary artist, coupled with the overstimulation we all receive as technology-driven beings of the twenty-first century, there must be a panoply of influences and voices that you contend with daily. Amongst all these influences, do you consider your art to be personal? In several pieces, such as ‘Mshoga Mpya’, or ‘the New Homosexual’, or ‘Prison Sex I’I, or your forthcoming project about memories and child abuse, there seems to be a connection between oppressed individuals and your work. I’m interested to know if these people are a source of inspiration, or if their stories just resonate with you and compel you to speak into them.
AM | I’ve done some very personal pieces and others that speak to a wider audience. The narratives of others definitely resonate and there are personal origins because, to some degree, it’s rooted in being a woman, or being Kenyan. But I also like to tell stories, or at least for each work to have a certain narrative. It stems from a personal element, but also the need to be poetic or creative. What else would I do with my life? I’m very grateful to Simon [Njami] for an essay he wrote about my work where he astutely noted that I just need to perform.  It’s really as simple as that.
Ato Malinda (born 1981, Kenya), lives and works in Rotterdam. She has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Transart Institute, New York. Her works consist of performance, drawing, painting, installation, video, and ceramic object-making. Through her diverse practice, Malinda investigates the hybrid nature of African identity, contesting notions of authenticity, as well as focuses on gender and sexuality.
Malinda was one of the awardees of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2015) and won the One Minutes Award (2012) for moving photography. Her solo shows include “Games” (2013) at Savvy Contemporary, and “Incommensurable Identities” (2011) at Aarhus Art Building. She has exhibited in group exhibitions at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main (2014), the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (2015), Salon Urbain de Douala in Cameroon (2010) and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen (2015).
1. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd, 2006: 255-270.
2. Simon Njami, “A Real Imaginary,” Ato Malinda, Nairobi: Goethe-Institut Kenya, 2011.
Written by Joseph Underwood.