Skip to main content

< Return to artist's essay

Grace Ndiritu

By Sarah Kent

1. Introduction

'Shamans act like a gateway; they take on a problem from the community and can transcend it. Artists can be like that. Art is a powerful force; and if used in the correct way, it can be really transformative.' GN.

Grace Ndiritu came to video by an indirect route. At Winchester School of Art, she studied textiles art, but it soon became apparent that she wasn't interested in designing fabrics. She was too politically engaged (and too astute) to enter the commercial sector. Her degree show consisted of the Free Store, an installation resembling a shop display, inspired by Joseph Beuys. The antithesis of the commercialism underpinning the fashion industry, the shop displayed brown paper carrier bags that contained items which were new, old, rich and poor, alongside stones printed with the word 'potential'. All were all to be given away for free. Thus 'by rejecting an economic structure that promotes the importance of objects by their cost', reads the text printed on the bags, 'this collection tries instead to visualise a 'spiritual' economy...(based on) the Tibetan belief that every object has a spiritual content, perhaps even a soul.'

Viewers were also given a questionnaire that, by inverting the norms, reveals the bias of the supposedly neutral statistics gleaned in this way. Under race/ethnic origin, the choice is 'Asian, Oriental, Black, Latin American, Native American, Aboriginal, other' so that whites find themselves categorised as alien outsiders. Under 'Gender', females and transsexuals are given centre stage, while men are marginalised. 'Questionnaires basically divide identity into categories of ''them'' and ''us'',' reads the accompanying text, 'and can, perhaps, perpetuate stereotypes and inequality.'

The questionnaire would seem angrily confrontational if it weren't so extreme; absurdity reduces the element of challenge, but also makes the piece more insidious. Humour also characterises a mail-out sent to randomly selected households in Birmingham. Having shaved off her abundant dreadlocks, Ndiritu placed a lock of hair in each envelope with an explanatory letter: ' ''Haircut'' is dedicated to you and your family, because we believe that your household could benefit from this gesture... For many people hair is another category by which 'others' can be stereotyped by their gender, age, race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual and political orientation and, most significantly, their aesthetic beauty. However.... by accepting that sometimes HAIR IS JUST HAIR, we celebrate commonality and begin to change the values by which people perceive one another....' I like to imagine the bemused recipients opening their envelopes and responding with dismay, disgust, suspicion or pleasure to this unsolicited gift.

2. Hand-crafted videos

Pinned to Ndiritu's studio wall is a mood board, a collage of found images that provides a snapshot of the elements inhabiting the cognitive terrain on which she draws.

A photograph of a maori meeting house is juxtaposed with a Masai warrior, a temple in Mali, the temple complex of Borobudur in Java, an Antarctic landscape, a flier for the Women and Third World Working Group to which her mother belonged, a postcard of Frida Kahlo's painting 'My Nurse and I' and a circular chart with 'Atman' (Sanskrit for soul or ego) written in the centre and the 'collective unconscious' at the periphery.

As a child, Ndiritu had spontaneous shamanistic experiences and began practising astral projection and after leaving De Ateliers in Amsterdam in 2000, she spent three years meditating, fasting and practicing Yoga Tantra. In Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives, she spent ten days studying vipassana meditation, the form explored by Marina Abramovic in 'The House with the Ocean View' at the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York in 2002.

This gave her the tools and the confidence to confront the camera and, in 2003, she embarked on the work for which she has become known - making what she calls 'hand-crafted videos', solo performances in front of a camera fixed on a tripod. They are made in a trance-like state that produces a mesmerising intensity of focus; Ndiritu's gaze seems to transfix and to hold the viewer for the length of time it takes to put across her viewpoint.

'Waking Art' is the first of these pieces. She describes it as an 'initiation ceremony, my communion with the universe to reach the next level.' Eyes closed, she pats and rubs white clay onto her face to the rhythms of West African trance music; as the music speeds up, her movements become more vigorous - as though she is determined to slap herself into a state of wakefulness. Finally achieving her aim, she opens her eyes and stares at the camera.

'I was waking up the art part inside myself', she explains. 'The piece was inspired by Bruce Nauman's face painting video, but also by initiation ceremonies in which Aboriginals cover themselves with ash to signify death or transition.' An apparent reluctance to expose herself makes one feel like a snooper, intruding on a private moment; but Ndiritu turns our embarrassment to her advantage. It gives the work an edge that moulds us into a captive audience.

3. Nightingale

'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.

4. Absolut Native

'Humanity's problems began as soon as we settled and became agriculturalists. Staying in one place enabled us to accumulate possessions and therefore create problems like pollution and over-consumption.' GN.

In the west our lives may be blighted by consumerism, but in the third world few can indulge in the luxury of wasteful spending. Ndiritu uses irony to address this complex issue. The title of Absolut Native is written in the blue typeface of Absolut vodka. As black feet stomp on bare soil to the cheerful sounds of the vibraphone, a statement by Joseph Stigltiz, former chief economist of the World Bank, scrolls underneath in the same typeface: 'It has long been individually accepted that some form of debt forgiveness was needed for highly indebted poor countries but... countries had to meet a series of hurdles set by the IMF (which) ... was hardly enthusiastic about what debt forgiveness would do to its balance sheet. Given all this it is not surprising that only three countries - Uganda, Bolivia and Guyana - met the hurdles and received debt relief.'

Its not hard to see whose tune the feet are dancing to, but the video is not merely a rant against the IMF; it touches on the more complex topic of the relationship between rich and developing nations. The barefoot dancer is the exotic 'other', whose cultural traditions have become a tourist attraction, a lure for foreign currency; but the price for putting oneself on display is high. Your culture may be preserved, but only as entertainment. 'You can commodify anything', says Ndiritu. 'You can commodify having an ''authentic'' experience, through tourism.' To mimic the way the third world is marketed, she has enhanced the rich tones of the image to make it as seductive as a Vodka ad.

5. Video Paintings

'I prefer using a static camera, because it's more like painting. This is not entertainment, like MTV; it's meant to be a bit more meaningful - more formal. GN.

Matisse's trip to Morocco in 1911 inspired in him a lasting love of African textiles; in painting after painting, he surrounds a female nude with vibrant patterns derived from exotic fabrics. In Still Life, a four screen 'video painting', Ndiritu pays homage to Matisse while, at the same time, achieving a twofold act of reclamation. As both artist and model, she transforms the female nude from a decorative object into an active subject and, as props, she uses the African textiles with which she grew up and which are therefore redolent of home (rather than of foreign climes).

The transition is not without complexity, though. Instead of full exposure, the artist either teases us with seductive glimpses or is completely swathed in material. In Still Life: Sitting Down Textiles she sits on a blue plastic chair in profile, wrapped like a mummy in blue cloth printed with orange flowers. Like Matisse's nudes, she is one element in a perfectly-balanced composition, consisting here of brown and blue muslin juxtaposed with green cotton patterned with swallows in flight. Yet, despite the beauty of the design, though, the image does not convey the langorous delight of Matisse's paintings since, beneath her wrappings, the model twitches like someone trying to escape confinement or bondage.

There she is again in Still Life: Lying Down Textiles reclining in the pose of a Matisse 'Odalisque' surrounded by lengths of vibrantly patterned cloth; her arm is visible but her head is covered and her heavy breathing suggests anxiety or claustrophobia. This state may be induced by the stillness required of a model or be indicative of the repressive circumstances imposed on many women in the third world. In both videos the shallow space in which she is confined and the silence of the piece make her seem stifled and muzzled. Both videos invert the colonial gaze, as it were; so that from the model's viewpoint, reality is revealed to be more constrained.

Meanwhile on the other screens, Ndiritu takes the intitiative. Standing hidden behind a length of cloth, she slowly caresses its edges; her hands glide hypnotically over the material and the body beneath, as though invoking an absent lover. Now she sits sandwiched between lengths of batik printed with a dramatic pattern whose spiky edges remind me of the vagina dentata of Freudian fears and fantasies. This time, the seduction is more brazen and seems directed at us; as she caresses her thighs, she exposes them to view - as though inviting our response. Repression and sexual freedom; in one sense they are opposites, but they also represent the twin stereotypes according to which non-western women are seen as either closeted or promiscuous. 'Still Life' sets up a dialogue between the two.

6. Responsible Tourism

'Before I became a professional artist I thought my career was to be a global traveller; I'm a transcultural kind of person.' GN.

Responsible Tourism is a new departure. Made during a visit to Mali, the four screen video was filmed with a hand-held camera; rather than using herself as a model, Ndiritu focuses on the people she encounters. Camel riders assemble for a race. The film is looped into a short sequence so that the movement repeats in an apparently endless circle. A group of Tuareg women clap and sing to the beat of a drum; seen from above in a tight cluster, they perform for one another, apparently unaware of the camera. Ndiritu likens the one to a painting and the other to the heightened exoticism of photographs in National Geographic, while the framing was inspired by news coverage of events in Africa.

A group listens to music. A shabbily dressed boy, his eyes gummed up with conjunctivitis, sits beside a well-groomed tourist whose camera is sheathed in plastic to protect it from the dust that cakes the boy's skin and clothing. Ndiritu observes the juxtaposition between rich and poor, foreigners and locals. She is also a foreigner, but her ancestry makes her less of an outsider than the white tourist; yet one senses that she doesn't fully identify with either.

'Its about belonging and not belonging', she says. 'I've lived between the two polarities of being half nomadic (Masai), and half settler (Kikuyu) all my life and now I've come to terms with that. I try to live horizontally and vertically at the same time; I'm aware that if you settle in one place you can delve deeper, but if you move around you have an overview.'

She has many childhood memories of time spent in Kenya visiting relatives. 'In Africa', she says. 'you feel as if you are in the centre of the planet, a human being really living; in the west, I feel like a brain responding to input and stimuli.' Her wrists are tattooed with the phrase 'No Fixed Destiny'.

On the fourth screen, a man cooks lunch over an open fire. The artist follows every move while the long-suffering cook ignores her. Her actions feel intrusive until you discover that she spent several weeks travelling with this man and the video pays homage to his life style. 'That's my kind of life', says Ndiritu. 'The nomadic life is more simple and it makes sense. Here we need help to get our priorities right; we think that because we go to Tesco and drive expensive cars that our society is more advanced; but if this is the pinnacle of human civilization we are fucked. What makes me really angry is that we've brainwashed everyone else into thinking it is so.

'I had a chance to stay in Mali and it was a real dilemma; but if I had stayed and made art just for myself in the middle of the desert it would have been selfish. I have an obligation to contribute to the way society is shaped - to bring things to show people here and change their minds about people over there. I may not be an aid worker, but I can still participate and bring issues to the attention of a wider public. Part of my job is to make work here and to give money to charities such as World Development Movement, Action on Disability and Development and Amnesty International who address a wide range of inequalities in the world today. I'm someone who wakes you up - I like the challenge and I'm ready for it.'

Sarah Kent is an art critic.

< Return to artist's essay