Nancy Mteki - Honai
5 - 28 August 2015
Njelele Art Station, Harare, Zimbabwe
Upon entering Njelele for the opening of Nancy Mteki’s exhibition, “Honai,” I was embraced by a clamour of bodies, voices and cameras; a poignant first impression given the inter-connectedness of the body, the voice and the camera in Mteki’s work, or more specifically, the female body giving itself voice from within the frame of a photograph.
A show that is at once intimate and challenging, Mteki uses a camera and her body to express her experience as a Zimbabwean woman in a society that “shames whilst simultaneously sexualising and objectifying the black female form.”[i] This assertion, made by Tawanda Appiah in his introduction to “Honai,” cuts to the quick of the milieu in which the show has emerged.
The exhibition is curated in two parts: Untitled, “Honai,” and Untitled, “Mask.” They appear as two different narratives, connected by the presence of the female body. The former explores the external, practical, bodily experiences of the woman, while the latter considers the woman’s internal, emotional and mental encounters.
Untitled “Mask” (1) and (2) comprise two photographs of the artist with her face covered in yellow pigment. In Untitled “Mask” (1) her expression is one of pain, her eyes closed, her whole attitude withdrawn. The second photograph is a stark contrast. Her gaze meets that of the viewer with a defiance and directness that masks the vulnerability present in the former image. The two photographs are powerful in their chronology – they create, succinctly, a whole narrative of experience that many women encounter often: the need to mask one’s fragilities. Untitled “Mask” (3) is a video installation showing the artist with her face and hands painted, moving within a space of infinite darkness and silence that creates a feeling of peeking in on something private and sacred. The video echoes the narrative within the two photographs, with the figure performing the shifting moments of emotional masking and unmasking.
“Honai” is a Shona word that is difficult to translate. It can mean “look” but it can also mean “see this.”[ii] There is an interesting tension between the two meanings within the context of this exhibition. To look is a passive action of casting one’s eyes over something (or someone) and acknowledging its (or their) presence, while to see is an active process of looking further, perceiving what is being seeing in relation to previous knowledge.
In her 1975 book, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey politicised the act of looking by defining it as a power-bound engagement in which the onlooker possesses a certain power over the person being looked at.[iii] She relates the passive/active dialectic of looking/seeing to the politics of images of women in film, contending that
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.[iv]
In other words, the woman looks at herself being seen by the man.[v] In these photographs and in the video, Mteki challenges this notion by remaining utterly introspective, and when she does look out she does so with a mask, thus protecting herself. The connection of looking to power is a tenuous one, because although the viewer has the ability to observe, unfettered, the face and body of the artist, she presents herself in such a way as to arouse a feeling of contrition, rather than one of dominance.
Two years after the publication of Mulvey’s book, Susan Sontag politicised the act of taking a photograph in On Photography, by defining it as an act that “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”[vi] She writes,
The camera doesn't rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate - all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment […] To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.[vii]
The complexity of this assertion emerges when the photographer photographs herself. Does she render herself object by doing so? Or does she emancipate herself from symbolic possession. Does she see herself as she would never otherwise see herself, gain knowledge of herself that she would otherwise not have, or is she handing over this power of knowledge to the viewer to exploit?
The series, Untitled, “Honai” (1) – (7) engages these questions of power and possession, comprising a narrative of photographic self-portraits of the artist in her kitchen, the walls covered in newspaper, her body presenting itself in various stages of nakedness. Her expression is one of contempt, even boredom, certainly a refusal to meet the gaze of the viewer, rather than an inability to. She is dressed in masculine clothes, which as the series progresses, she expels piece by piece until her body presents itself with a directness that deposes the notion of the female form as a sexualised, passive, pleasure-giving object and enables her to command sovereignty of her body and herself-as-subject.
This is reinforced by the space that surrounds her. The kitchen with walls adorned by newspaper engenders a sense of both privacy and publicity, bringing to mind an observation made by Homi K Bhabha in his book, The Location of Culture: “In a feverish stillness, the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions.”[viii] The historical trajectory of the emancipation of women is certainly one in which intimacy is invaded, the body explored, the home scrutinized, a necessary process that induces a perception and portrayal of the female form as a vessel for autonomy, power and independence, and not as a passive vessel for objectification.
That the concerns surrounding the sexualisation of women in photography and film, and the appropriation of the body-as-object by the act of taking a photograph were raised forty years ago, by Mulvey and Sontag to name a few, shows that it is no new discussion. That it is on-going and will continue to do so shows that the issues surrounding the representation of the female body is a deeply layered and complex discourse, particularly in Zimbabwe whose society is relatively conservative. [ix]
With “Honai,” Nancy Mteki unsettles patriarchal boundaries as well as those that dictate what forms of artistic expression and subject matter are accepted in Zimbabwe, defiantly presenting the female figure with a temerity that safeguards her body, and her self.
Helen Teede is a painter and writer based in Zimbabwe. Check out her website and blog at www.helenteede.com
[i] Appiah, Tawanda. 2015, Nancy Mteki, Honai. Harare: Njelele, 1.
[ii] Mukarati, Vee. Trans. Discussion. 9th August 2015.
[iii] Mulvey, Laura. 1975. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Issues in Feninist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Indiana: Bloomington
[iv] Mulvey, Laura. 1975. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Issues in Feninist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Indiana: Bloomington, Ibid., 33.
[v] An interesting discussion on looking an seeing can be found in John Berger, 2008, Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books.
[vi] Sontag, Susan. 1977, On Photography. New York: Penguin, 14.
[vii] Ibid., 13-15.
[viii] Homi K Bhabha, 1994 “The World and the Home” in Dangerous Liasons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives, Edited by Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat, 1997. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 445.
[ix] I am comparing Zimbabwe loosely to South Africa. Upon seeing the show I immediately drew connections between Mteki’s work and that of three South African artists engaging in a similar discourse, Zanele Muholi, Berni Searle and Penny Siopis, all of whom express concerns with the sexualisation of the female form through imagery much more subversive than what Mteki shows in “Honai.”