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Grace Ndiritu
'I think of myself as a blank canvas; I realise that I can look like anybody - from a terrorist to a house wife. These are not self-portraits, its more universal than that. My role is as a signifier.' GN.

I first saw 'Nightingale' projected above the altar of a dilapidated church in Venice, where one might expect to find a painting of the Virgin. The dramatically confrontational image has stayed with me ever since; it was one of the most memorable pieces in the Biennale. The video begins in sepia; accompanied by African chanting, Ndiritu slides a cloth slowly down over head and shoulders to reveal half her face, eyes closed in prayer or meditation, as though she were a black madonna.

The image flips into colour and the pace changes from contemplative calm to frenetic activity. To the upbeat rhythms of West African music, Ndiritu wraps the cloth round her head and face in a rapid series of syncopated gestures that seem to explore the diverse uses and meanings of the headscarf - from veil, to turban, bandanna, blindfold, burka and gag. Her intense gaze seems to demand a response, yet is highly ambiguous; whether she is issuing a challenge, being flirtatious or appealing for help remains an open question.

'I wore that scarf during the many years I spent travelling', says Ndiritu. 'And after 9/11, I was aware of a massive increase in security at airports. I was thinking about being seen as a terrorist in a world filled with suspicion between east and west, and about being in between two cultures - finding your place.'

In Desert Storm (2004) she lies on a map of the world, her face and body covered by flimsy muslin. She writhes around as though being pushed and pulled by invisible hands; her lips are slightly parted, but it is impossible to tell whether she is experiencing ecstacy or suffering trauma while, beneath her, scrolls the names of countries (Sudan, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kashmir, Tibet, Eritrea, Kosovo, Chiapas, Algeria, Congo, Sri Lanka, Guinea Bissau, Indonesia) in which rape has been systematically used as a weapon of war.

At the last minute, she pulls the cloth from her eyes to fix us with a wild, accusatory stare. Our viewpoint also implicates us in her plight. She is lying at our feet and seems to be at our mercy - as though her fate were in our hands. While capturing our attention and transfixing us with her insistent stare, Ndiritu also remains partially hidden - as though she were an unwilling performer. Such ambiguity is a crucial aspect of the work; it introduces a subtlety that is both seductive and disarming, and makes one receptive to the topics which she addresses, whether they be identity politics, third world debt, colonialism or consumerism.

Top: Still from The Nightingale (2003); Bottom: Still from Desert Storm (2004) by Grace Ndiritu
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