By Margaretta wa Gacheru
There are few hot-button issues more explosive in Africa today than homosexuality.
Across the region, from Nigeria to Uganda and potentially in Kenya, laws are being changed to not just criminalise the condition (MPs) recently renamed ‘gayism’.
If accused and convicted of what’s now legally considered an offense against Nature and the State in some parts of the region, that person could be jailed for life or even worse: their offense could be punishable by death.
At Kuona Gallery, Tahir’s images and Mescak’s masks. Photo by MD of The Star, William Pike
So an art installation like the one currently on at Kuona Trust is most timely.
Tahir Karmali never assumed his photographic exhibition, filled with powerful black and white portraits of male sex workers would be anything less than provocative.
It was apparently only a coincidence that the art installation he co-created with Kuona sculptor Meshak Oiro, opened at the same moment when Africans across the region are asking themselves questions about what they value and hold sacred and what they see as anathema to African culture and tradition.
The focal topic of Tahir and Meshak’s art installation addresses a subject that forces the viewer to confront his/her own position on the larger, deeper issue of what they personally ‘value.’
That’s the same topic Tahir asked of all the men he interviewed before taking their photograph and confirming they’d be happy to feature in the current showcase of the photographer’s striking images and Meshak’s matching masks.
Value: Seeing through the eyes of someone else’ raises multiple issues, especially as Tahir didn’t just photograph the men; he also insisted they hold onto the thing (or symbol thereof) that best reflected what they cherish or value most highly.
NOT ALL VALUED ARE DIFFERENT
What may be startling to some who visit Kuona over the next fortnight is that what they value is hardly any different from what the ordinary Kenyan (rich or poor) values as well.
Not all the items valued are different. One mentions money and clutches a fist full of shillings; another says he treasures education and holds an exercise book to give its symbolic representation.
And several showed how much they love their cell phone.
“To me, I think the cell phone symbolises communication and the desire for friendship and connectedness with others,” said Tahir whose ‘take’ on the cell phone was quite different from that of another viewer who was present at Kuona last Thursday’s Opening Night.
Tahir Karmali with his photos of male sex-workers. photo by margaretta
“The cell phone is essential for a sex worker’s business, especially as most of his clients don’t want to be seen at night in Nairobi’s CBD. Instead, they prefer calling the sex-worker of choice and designating a rendezvous point,” said the viewer who preferred to remain anonymous.
It was indeed touching to see one sex worker holding on to a keyboard because he’s studying music and dreams of one day becoming a professional musician.
For his part, Meshak welded together same-size diamond shaped metallic ‘masks’ which hang gratuitously from Kuona’s ceiling. Each is unique and distinct from the other in design, much like each male sex-worker.
The masks enhance the aesthetic value of the installation, but they also symbolize the idea that almost everyone wears a mask to conceal their true feelings.
Meshak Oiro, scrap metal sculptor created masks to go with Tahir’s photography. Pix by Margaretta
The Star’s Managing Director William Pike attended the Kuona opening last Thursday night, and placed his own valuation on the show.
“The exhibition could easily go straight to London or New York and be very well received,” said the Briton who was born in Southern Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe).
His view is shared by others, not only because of its timeliness, but also because of the philosophical and social, as well as economic, implications of the images.
What’s more, it was Tahir’s intention all along to highlight what’s of value to a marginalized group of people, like male sex-workers – be they gay or transsexual.
Meanwhile, the Circle Art Agency’s showcase of more than 40 works of art by contemporary mainly Kenyan artists was almost as stunning as CAA’s recent East African Art Auction.
Held in an ‘unoccupied’ mansion just behind the Zen Garden restaurant, the exhibition left one in no doubt that CAA is a major player in the Nairobi art scene and one to watch since it strategically arranges art shows that benefit not only the artists and the audiences but themselves as well.