2018 - Ongoing
'Let us all compose verses, examining them critically, retaining the best and discarding the rest. And when we consider the verses, how well- composed they are, they should give us the urge, to eulogize the Lady Manga…..'
The title of the exhibition refers to the Swahili writer Fumo Liyongo’s ancient erotic poem: Utendi wa Mwana Manga (In Praise of the Arab Woman). Liyongo’s prose was first transcribed into the Arabic script, quite possibly during the time of Omani governance of parts of the East African coast during the 18th century. It prompted me to travel to Lamu, an island on the northern coast of Kenya, where the Swahili culture - born from multiple exchanges between mainly the Arab, Persian and East African worlds - is uniquely preserved and where I began exploring the representation and the power of the feminine presence in that ancient civilization.
My journey to Lamu began with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the Omani/Swahili connection. Poetry and in particular this poem was the catalyzing element that produced a deep connection between myself and the local women, and with it, access to intimate notions that are still very much a guarded territory for this ancient culture. In developing this close relationship, I found myself increasingly contemplating dormant aspects of my own culture which brought me into a forgotten, yet hauntingly familiar territory. This sensitivity to my new environment urged me to better understand the source of certain shared traditions, rites and rituals and prompted an even deeper contemplation about myself, my identity and my origins.
The project includes large prints a meter squared in size, portraying sensual subterranean desire as a tableau of truncated, abstracted and adorned parts of the body. Young women are presented and juxtaposed next to verses of the poem that are carved into bespoke wooden frames made in Lamu by local artisans. These frames incorporate traditional motifs commonly found on old doors, underlining the correspondence between the representation of the feminine and the architecture and design that permeates the island. Small prints chronicle symbolic representations of the erotic, used in the poem and still very much present in contemporary Swahili language and psyche.
Interrogating issues of the erotic etiquette, protocol and simulacrum in Lamu, I reveal what Bahraini curator and writer Yasmin Sharabi describes as “the symbiotic relationship that exists between the elements, the feminine and the internal/external space" and "the power of the feminine beauty and strength”.