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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Soi on corruption, commercial sex and London 2012

By Andrew Mulenga

Kenya has continuously done itself and the continent proud over the years when it comes to producing runners, particularly at the Olympics.

Male spectators step closer for the rear view of a female weight lifter
This year however, the East African country exhibited one of its worst performances at the competitions inspiring 39-year old Nairobi artist Michael Soi to dedicate an entire series of paintings to the London 2012 games.
An all male crowd at a womens' beech volleyball tournament 

The poor performance was because there were issues with selection. Some, who did not deserve to go, went. We lost race after race and this disappointment is what brought about the argument,” says Soi when asked to elaborate. 
Although rib-tickling because of his light-hearted interpretation of urban life, his work is at times hard hitting and critical of Kenya’s politics and speaking out against corruption is among his favourite themes.

It’s gonna boil down to frustration in a country where people pay taxes and get nothing in return. Because of poor governance and the fact that graft is an impediment to social political and economic growth,” he says.

Recently, Ai Weiwei in China, Brett Murray in South Africa and Asim Travidi of India who was arrested this week are artists that have been in trouble for assuming a critical edge in their own countries. Asked for his opinion on such infringements against creative liberties, Soi’s answer is short.

I never think of it. If I do, I will never work. I will end up getting a nine to five job,” he says admitting that it is not easy to earn a living in art alone on the African continent, but that it can be done, since he is doing it. 
He says he has never been in trouble with the powers that be because the issues he raises have already been reported on in the press, from where he draws ideas.

In his London 2012 paintings, Soi’s athletes are women with outrageously voluptuous bottoms performing while slobbering male spectators peer at them implying the games possess an element of perverted voyeurism. One painting shows a weight lifter from team USA, as she bends over to lift her barbells; the all-male, crowd appears to lean over for a closer view of her rear end. 
The Land Cruiser
I love the female form. I find it more interesting than the male. And yes, there was the aspect of voyeurism (at the Olympics). It’s always there no matter how people try to pretend. All the beach volleyball matches were packed and mostly with men,” he insinuates, declaring the games a pervert’s paradise. 
He may have a point. In the modern games, tight fitting sports costume leaves very little to the imagination, which might explain why even here in Lusaka it was not uncommon to walk into a sports bar during the Olympics to find male patrons glued to the screens watching games almost alien to this part of the continent such as beach volleyball, synchronized swimming and gymnastics of all things.

His work on night life suggests rampant sex tourism in Nairobi’s infamous Koinange Street where women with good professions and incomes hawk sex and brings out the aspect of underground red light districts mushrooming in Kenya’s major cities. He regularly depicts scenes of strip clubs, expatriates picking up ladies of the night and male police officers chasing or soliciting favours from skimpily clad women who will definitely end up in jail if they do not pay in kind.

He says the things people say during the day and what they do at night are totally different alluding to hypocrisy going on in a society that asserts itself to be religiously sound and morally upright, steeped in Christian, Hindu and Muslim faiths.

Commercial sex work, money and alcohol are a big part of what a lot of African cities are. I just love to talk about it. People love to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. I love the strip club scenes because there are a lot of them coming up in Nairobi. I am more interested in the men who frequent these establishments than the topless women,” he says.
Typical works that display this are the self-explanatory The Land Cruiser, The Expatriates and China Loves Africa. The Land Cruiser shows constables fondling sex workers, The Expatriates shows Caucasian men eyeballing a stripper and China Loves Africa shows an Asian man clutching the breasts of two African women, while one of them clasps the man’s crotch in what looks like a painful grip. 
Soi has exhibited all over the world but insists his favourite place is Nairobi, because much of his work revolves around the city in which he was born and bred. He explains that his style (always acrylics and mixed media on canvas) deliberately employs a simple, flat perspective to be easily understood even by children, not that any parent would want their child to understand the depth of his mischievous subject matter.

Despite overseas, he is not too enthusiastic about the European or western commercial gallery system well known for hefty commission on artists’ work.
It needs to understand African art. It might work for western and southern Africa but we are waiting to see it work for eastern Africa,” he says.

Soi was a 2011 Sovereign Awards finalist; his works are also in permanent collections in the Casoria contemporary art museum, Napoli, Italy as well as the Standard Chartered Bank collection UK. His relentless assault on hypocrisy and gluttony from priests to corrupt politicians reaffirms artists as sharp tools in the arsenal of civil society.

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