LULU KITOLOLO + NG’ENDO MUKII ON ART + THE ARTIST + KENYA
Discourses that dissect African art and the African artist are, with good reason, entangled with discourses on identity — culture, race, gender. The continent finds itself on a threshold between postcolonial representation and a new era of African voices. Both creative powerhouses, Lulu Kitololo and Ng’endo Mukii chart new avenues within Africa’s creative industry. Their approaches differ: Lulu’s curation is grounded in self-love, freedom, and creating spaces for women in the arts. Ng’endo hones in on exploration, colonialism, and the evolving human condition of African bodies. Yet these vital Kenyan explorers still find themes in their work — and lives — overlapping.
Our editor spent an afternoon documenting this incredible catch-up between the two artists and friends. Their reflections on their journeys are both profound and light-hearted as they envision an industry that remains authentic to African and female narratives.
*The below is edited for brevity and clarity*
AN EARLY INFLUENCE
Lulu Kitololo: I was reflecting on what our favourite high school art teacher, Pat Evans, used to tell me and how that’s shaped my work. I used to do very realistic drawings, and she was always challenging me to let go and be free to experiment. She is always in my head, challenging me to pause and experiment. So I’ll do that, and then I’ll come back to my comfortable, control-freak ways. But it’s helped me explore and experiment, which has helped my work.
Ng’endo Mukii: She was always telling me also, “Ng’endo, can you stop doing these photorealistic drawings? Who cares about photorealism? You can just take a photo. Why are you spending 50 hours drawing a woman?” And I didn’t understand what she was saying. And when I went to art school, I tried to loosen up, and then I ended up in animation, which is another high-intensity, long-process industry. So I think it’s just part of who I am.
ON A MISSING EAST AFRICAN HISTORY
L: I went abroad to art school and then I went to do an African Studies degree, again outside Kenya. The unfortunate fact is that these scholars and libraries with this knowledge are abroad. People would ask me, “But you’re African — why do you need to study Africa?” And the irony is that we don’t study ourselves. We’re constantly looking outside.
N: Even in art school when you’re looking at Africa in art history, it’s mostly West African. And Egyptian art is in a section of its own for some reason. Eastern Africa doesn’t feature in these histories. I learned a lot about Igbo and Yoruba art.
THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE WE THREATEN BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW WHERE TO PLACE US.
REPRESENTATION: CULTURE, RACE, GENDER
N: It’s a major problem that we’re tuned from the time we are young to appreciate content that is from abroad. We’re tuned through religion, what we watch on television, what’s playing on our radios. So by the time we’re adults and we’re trying to find ways to express ourselves, it conflicts with what the general population wants because they’re not tuned to it. It’s like we’re remaking a language — an African visual language. I feel that we just really have to force it.
L: [On creating a vocabulary for what it is to be an African artist] That’s what inspires me. How can we get away from the cliché, the orientalism of our culture and heritage and reimagine it for ourselves?
N: The whole point is for us to create a space in an industry in which we are also consuming our own content. If you keep looking towards Hollywood, to people who are telling stories based on white, male experiences, then we’ll be waiting forever. Because they can celebrate diversity one year, and then as we’ve seen this year, it’s like, “Oh shoot! Did we forget about you guys?”
L: As young(ish), Kenyan, creative business people — there are so many people we threaten because they don’t know where to place us. And we’re outspoken about things that you aren’t supposed to talk about. So we just have to block out that nonsense in order to keep doing the work that we want and need to do.
N: Abroad, when my films are playing in festivals, I find that the creativity that my fellow African woman filmmakers are expressing is strongly celebrated. Whereas locally, I feel that male filmmakers are making more strides commercially. I think people [at festivals abroad] are interested in experimental languages in film — people finding their voices, looking at different paths in the filmmaking process. Whereas commercially, we follow a very traditional path, and you’re building on networks that have already been established and might not let women in.
N: There is the idea that African culture is stagnant, that it’s locked in a period before white people arrived. That after that, everything that has happened isn’t African. But if it’s not African, then what is it? We’ve been colonised, but we’re still taking that information and mixing it with things that we’ve had and expressing it differently. I think it would be beautiful if we understood that because then we could embrace our history. Because we’re afraid of it. We’ve been taught to be afraid of something that is deemed primitive, something that we should leave behind.
WORKING ABROAD VS. IN KENYA
L: I’m really happy to be back living in Kenya. I feel a liberation. Because our creative industry is so embryonic, there is freedom to set the stage and be in a place that is not saturated. It’s been very grounding to be back home, and as a result I feel more productive and more creative. Living in the US and in the UK, I always felt so transitory: “I’m not in control over being able to stay here.” Being home has freed me to do more.
N: When you’re abroad it’s like taking shots of coffee. And when you’re here, you’re brewing tea. Abroad, you do stuff very quickly, but it also means that you’re doing smaller things. When you’re in Kenya, you allow things to brew longer and you can go deeper.
N: I’m about to release Kitwana’s Journey, which is an animation based on a true story about a young boy who was trafficked from Nairobi to upcountry and how he got back home after four years of being abused and living on the streets. It’s a sweet little story — it’s made for children but it can also be watched by adults. So it’s brightly coloured and engaging, and I’m really excited to finally put it online.
L: I have some exciting mural projects in the works, which is something I’ve been doing more of that I really love because it’s contributing to a space in a grand way. I’ve also been doing audio recording where I capture live conversations and translate them into a visual form. And I’m thinking about using a similar approach to deconstruct things for mass consumption. I think sometimes with our art, you’re dealing with intellectual concepts, but how do you make that accessible?
WE’VE BEEN TAUGHT TO BE AFRAID OF SOMETHING THAT IS DEEMED PRIMITIVE, SOMETHING THAT WE SHOULD LEAVE BEHIND.
APPRECIATION FOR THE ARTS
L: Appreciation for the arts is still building. And I think that if you can get people to experience creativity themselves, then they realise, “Okay, there’s thought that goes into this. There’s consideration that goes into this.” and maybe that helps them appreciate our industry better.
N: Regarding a lack of appreciation for creativity, this is very closely linked to a lack of appreciation for culture, which is based on the colonial history that we’ve been subjected to. It’s so strange that decades after independence, we’re still reinforcing a colonial structure that says that creativity is not worthwhile. This is why I had to leave to go to art school. I think now there are more opportunities for people to study art here, but at that point [in 2001], it was like, “If you want open-mindedness, leave the country.”