Painting, Politics, and Power with Michael Soi
I was drawn into his work immediately because of its familiar color pallet and curious characters. Also the fact that I had just seen one in a bar the weekend before was, no doubt, influential in my curiosity.
Last year I spent 3 months in Kenya, primarily in Nairobi. I was there for a couple of reasons, but since I am an artist meeting other artists and learning about them and their work is, of course, always part of my travel. There are two main residency/art centers in Nairobi: The GoDown Arts Centre and Kuona Trust. It was at The GoDown that I met Michael. He was the studio mate of a contact I had.
Upon entering the studio, I recognized the cartoon-like gestures and the deliberate criticism of the normal happenings of Nairobian nightlife and other goings-on. Being my first time in Kenya, actually in Africa, I wanted to know more about the images/concepts and to gain a better understanding of what it means to be a contemporary artist in Nairobi.
I met and chatted with Michael a few times after that first studio visit, but never felt like I fully understood his work. I thought I would take this opportunity with Freerange to delve a bit deeper into the work with Michael, to hear from his perspective what were/are his motivations in the work, what are his influences, and where he is taking his work in the near future.
NR: In your work you wittily comment on and, in a way, attack everyday activities of ordinary Kenyan citizens. How did you come to use your art work as a vehicle for these social and political commentaries?
MS: It all begun very innocently. It was work that revolved around children as an alternative audience to my work. I used animal characters like pigs and cat. At this moment, they had no meaning as such. it was just plain simple what you see is what you get but over time I looked at these two characters and realised there was a lot of similarities that existed between our politicians and these two animals. Greed and selfishness. I still create work that kids can relate to in a very simple way and at the same time use the characters to address a more serious problem in Kenyan society through my work.
NR: Why is painting now your main medium? And why is this the appropriate medium for your message?
MS: I studied fine art and art history in art school. After graduation I joined kuona trust in 1996. This is when I can say I begun my long career and I basically took an interest in sculpture by default. We were young and broke at this time. So the issue of subject and material was not in our control. We worked on what we had at the moment but honestly, I think after one year I was too engrossed in wood sculpture because I took it up as a challenge and just wanted to see how far I could run away with it. Over time, I realised that this wasn’t telling the story as I wanted it told. This is what got me back to painting in 1998. I had too many ideas on my head and wood was kind of limiting. This is when I decided to take on painting as the instrument that I wanted to use to get my story told.
NR: Your work has been widely shown both internationally and at home in Kenya. Has the reception been different in the various countries? And how has that influenced, if at all, how you approach new work? Basically, who is your target audience and what role do they have in your work?
MS: I have been luck[y] in a way because of a lot of international travel early in my career. By the time I was 30 I had seen a fair portion of this world. It enabled me to engage in a lot of what I want to call cultural dialogue and at the same time, having to work with artists from diverse cultural back grounds and all. My target audience in the people of the city of Nairobi. This work revolves around their everyday kind of setting in all aspects of social life. I will address the issues around graft, matatu’s, commercial sex work and everything that affects them. Over the years, I have to realise that I can get a lot of the inspiration here. The international travel for residencies in places like London, New York, Amsterdam and many other cities I have visited in the course of my career have given me the option of looking at things differently and being able to approach issues from a broader view. It gave me knowledge that i am still downloading up to date in my quest to become a better artist. I don’t know what the role of my work is at the moment. that doesn’t concern me much but the most important thing here is that I have given myself the responsibility of documenting my city and its people visually so that the next generation of Kenyans and anybody else who is interested can look at it 50 years from now and see what Nairobi was up to in the 90’s and in the new millennium.
NR: Can you talk about how you see the role of women in Kenyan society and how that is translated in your work?
MS: I am not a social activist. I am a social commentator. Mostly, the use of women in my work is misunderstood. I believe in equality of the sexes and all. A lot of the work I made revolving around the strip clubs in Nairobi is about power. It has nothing to do with occasional look at a painting of a topless woman just for kick. It is about power in the sense of commercial sex work evolving to a point where the girls don’t have to stand in the streets anymore because there is social media now. Twitter and Facebook have provided a space where the girls will not have to freeze themselves to death by standing street corners and more.
Back to the issue of power, my strip club scenes are not about the pole dancer who is nude on the pole. It is always about them men ogling and drooling that surrounds her. One girl told me she doesn’t have to sleep with the men to make her money. All she has to do is give a lap dance for 4 minutes and she makes $7 and at the end of her shift, she has made $200 which is more than what the average 8 to 5 job going Nairobi resident makes in a day. This is power. She uses her body to make her ends meet. She doesn’t have to have sex with the client.
NR: I noticed that almost all of your characters have the same expressionless face. Could you tell me about that decision?
MS: I am still developing my characters. It is an on-going process.
NR: Visually, your paintings remind me of 70s and 80s cartoons like Fat Albert and the Jackson 5ive. Was this a conscious decision? If so, why? If not, do you think that observation is valid? Why or why not?
MS: It came from a point of wanting to make my work self-explanatory. Make it simple as possible. I don’t let western issues influence any of my work…There is a tendency to compare artists from the 3rd world with a master somewhere in the states or Europe. I have created my own subjects and characters to my work. I am me and my art is mine.
NR: This visual aesthetic was very popular in Latin America in the 80s, in particular in Chile. In fact, it was used by the dictatorship, on TV and in music, to keep the people “happy and occupied”. What do you think about the use of entertainment to keep the masses happy and distracted?
MS: It can easily be used as a form of propaganda. And yes, it was used in Chile and to some extend in Argentina and we also see it in drug regions of Mexico where use of art is being used by the cartels. But for me, I think my work belongs to me in the sense that I want to see it as a visual diary of some sort. I am just documenting my city on the things I see and observe every day. it is an attempt to get someone in the west who has not been to this part of the world to know my city. It is stuff that the next generation of Kenyans will look at and see where they came from.
NR: Could you talk about the method(s) of keeping the masses in line in Kenya?
MS: In Kenya, keep them talking. Use the media for that. Expose one scandal after another. They will keep talking.
NR: From my understanding, corruption in Kenya is widely understood and accepted. What do you seek to accomplish with your work?
MS: I try to address issues of political, religious and moral corruption. Audiences to my work need to look at where they fit in, whatever they do after that is up to them.
NR: And looking at the near future of Kenyan politics, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the elections in March, and how this might play out in your work.
MS: We will just have to wait and see. My take on it….They removed the crocodile from the river and put it in a swimming pool. It still remains a crocodile.
What’s your take on Michael’s work and the ideas he has presented here? Feel free to comment, or send me an email (nic [at] nicolerademacher [dot] com).Michael Soi is represented by Ed Cross Fine Art in London and The Little Art Gallery in Nairobi. You can see more of his work at michaelsoi.com or on his artist Facebook page.