African Diasporic Femininities: A Conversation with Sekai Machache & Awuor Onyango

by: , June 25, 2022

© Sekai Machache, A Silent Gifting (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

Artists Sekai Machache and Awuor Onyango investigate the visual representation of Black women in a western context, and how their African ancestry and heritage shaped their work for the exhibition Body of Land, held at Street Level Photoworks, in Scotland in 2021. The work is the result of an art residency exchange in Nairobi and Glasgow, and connects absence and presence, material and transcendence, symbols and history. It is a search for identity and for new visual ideas of women from the African diaspora. Zimbabwean/Scottish artist Sekai Machache explores her roots, feeding in spiritual influences to create dramatic and ethereal portraits that transform preconceived visual references, and invite the viewer to incorporate a new catalogue of visual associations. In each series, she plays with symbols, light, darkness and colour to guide us through rituals, creating suggestions rather than a presence, a search through the unknown. Kenyan artist Awuor Onyango, on the other hand, builds a visual representation of the African diaspora with collaborative portraits that focus on the multiple identities of Black women. She uses African fabric as a facilitator in the connection she develops with each woman she photographs, creating rituals of memory and accessing their ancestor’s selves. The works of Machache and Onyango navigate the reclamation of the place of African women in history and culture and complement each other in their conceptual suggestions and their visual impact. Here they speak about accessing their ancestral iconography, their collaboration with models, and how they think about labelling their work.


Camila Cavalcante (CC): Your work has a strong connection to your ancestry and the legacy that each person carries from their heritage. This creates a visual representation of Black women that challenges western ideas and iconography. What was your process to create this work?

Awuor Onyango (AW): The tribe that I am [in] is spread over 8 countries and my grandfather was Congolese. For me, that means that there are entire memories of the Congo that is somewhere in my DNA, and I don’t have access to. This idea that I am Kenyan depends on where you want to start the story of your memory. If you are in a new land, your DNA is experiencing this new land. So, if you want to tell stories about the old land that you are from, Memorituals is the opportunity to do that; to reach into, however far back you want to go. You can create a ritual of memory of who you are. As much as your kids can say that they are first generation Scottish, that part of you, of everyone who came before you, is there. We are calling all the powers of past souls into our souls. The thing I really like about memory is that one cannot really capture it; the only way you can capture it is in your body, so your entire ancestry is in your body. Everyone who can contribute to you, their memories, run in your body, one way or another. But at the same time, this is not something that a photograph can start, stop, and capture everything. That is why it needs to be continuous. It needs to be us meeting, us creating these rituals, these versions of you, that you want to archive. In a way, we were meditating on our ancestries, our histories, and these memories that have shaped us, literally. I’m walking through this, and my great grandmother is in me walking through this as well, and her great grandmother too, and what that means to each person with whom I collaborated.

Sekai Machache (SM): There were times that I thought I was in this project, in the process of making something, and other times I didn’t know how to even tackle this. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when I got to Kenya, because of access to the facilities. I had to come back to basics, because I didn’t have enough time or space to really do what I would have done if I was going to work with paint. So, I started drawing. I was working with marbling techniques and drawing back into it. I was meditating constantly around the space and looking really closely at things. It was more about me being back home in the African continent. I was trying to put forward an idea that was more about contacting the ancestors that have already come before, but not necessarily being able to speak to them. It was about being given these flashes of images, flashes of visions and dreams, promptings really. It is how I experience my communication with them. It’s hard. The message is from these little snippets of an image in your head.

CC: In a way you are creating this narrative as well, in a similar way to Memorituals. You are trying to decipher and to create a narrative that is already in your DNA.

SM: And it is also to make something tangible of something that is inherently intangible. I receive my messages in my dreams a lot of the time. In terms of the artwork, I thought it was just art for a long time. It turns out it’s not! That has been quite an interesting journey. Going to Kenya reawakened a lot of that in me. I wanted to capture something that is internal and external at the same time. When I started making the photographs it all started coming together. I have promptings in my dreams, and I buy these specific objects. I am just chasing this image that I have got in my head until I find it. It was really about taking these objects, these promptings, and bringing them to a space, and then having this potential ancestor who is gifting these objects to me. There is never a starting or a finishing point. In order for me to have been able to make the image, I have to have had the prompting to buy the object, to bring the object into the space. It’s circular. When you’re looking into the images at the end of it, you’re looking at a point in time within that circle. I have been researching people who practice this, like Sangomas in South Africa and Nyanga in Zimbabwe, the healers, my whole life. That means that I have naturally come to something that is from my heritage without anyone teaching it to me in my family. I find it very interesting that I have lived in Scotland all this time and quite naturally have developed this understanding that is something very traditional, pre-colonial.

CC: It was very apparent to me that your projects complement each other very well. I can see the similarities conceptually, but they complement each other visually too. Could you talk about this creation of a visual iconography? This reclamation of a place in visual history?

AO: One thing we have in common is photographing objects. Some materials, in particular, fabric, I find them to be very interesting. I brought some with me and it became interesting to collect fabric that I could find in Nairobi and know where they are from. I carried those fabrics with me, not really knowing which Black woman I would meet, but knowing that it would get back to them in some way. Part of the collaboration was that I would open my suitcase of fabrics and we would take our time talking about stories and histories of that. Each piece of cloth has a story, has a meaning, and this was a huge part of the visuals for me. Even the fabric has a message. In you choosing one fabric, it means something. You could choose it because of the message, the colour, the design, it means something. The East African tradition was of lived art. You didn’t make art to hang on the wall. You made art so that you could wear it, so that you could be seen with it, you would be saying something with every spectre of your being. For me it was important to bring that aspect of the visual culture and to incorporate the intentionality of everything. Everything meant something and that is the way it always was. I let people play their favourite music, then we would talk about their experiences, how they identify with their ancestral history, how much they know, how much they want to know, if they want to know. We have selfies and take photos so much, there is a performance that we put in front of the camera. But the more we talked, the more it changed from the performance to something that felt more grounded and routed.

CC: You were talking about the intentionality in the work, and facilitating the connection between the models and their ancestors, were they aware of that too? A big part of your work is giving the space for the visuality of what being an African woman looks like. Were they intentionally creating that visual iconography?

AO: We talked about it before. I already put in place a space where you can be yourself. You are not talking to the western canon about who you are. I am already a dark-skinned queer Black woman living in this world, so I try as best as I can to give you the space to be who you are. When I am talking to people about their ancestors, I see their pose shift from the western iconography of what a woman should look like in front of a camera to just come more into themselves. It’s much easier for me to induce a space where they felt comfortable enough to create their own iconography outside of what is expected of them in front of the camera. After, I would talk to them about it, because when I was editing, I was still in contact with the models, and I offered to everyone the photos that I didn’t choose from the project. I asked if they wanted me to edit the photos or if they wanted the raw files. I am very intentional about their say in how they were represented. This is supposed to be a conversation, it’s not me just coming in and extracting. It’s a collaboration. The more space I gave people to truly be themselves, truly understand that I was not there to position them in a certain way, the more comfortable everyone was in just being themselves.

SM: I have so much more experience of photographing myself. I work more collaboratively in organising, making events and community-based projects where we are actually sharing with each other. But when it’s my artwork I feel that I am in my own little bubble, in my own headspace. With this body of work, it was the first time that I photographed other people. I wasn’t thinking about trying to make it about them, because that’s not what the project was about for me. It was about talking to those who were not alive and trying to bring an awareness of that into the space, rather than necessarily to the people who are here and now and have the agency to speak for themselves. So, I am trying to speak with those who have gone before and bring their voices forwards. It was really about collecting these objects, collecting them in that space and creating images that for me gave an indication as to how the work was made, in a way. Rather than fully going through every process.

Also, in the pieces that I am performing a character, they felt more natural, because I know what I am doing when I am playing in the work. And I actually don’t care about the white gaze anymore, I am not interested in what a European mind is going to do with that image anymore, because I know that there is a certain type of person who understands what it is that they’re looking at, but the vast majority of people do not. People say a lot of things and they put a lot of things onto what I am doing, or trying to say, but rarely does someone actually get what it is that is being said in the work. So, I am really only speaking to those people, and that’s usually other Black women. I don’t think that my work, in general, is about trying to represent what Black womanhood is or can be. I don’t think gender really plays anything into my work either. I just happen to work with my own body, and it’s a gendered body. But I am looking beyond gender, beyond any sort of real worldly characterisations of these images.

CC: Finally, are these definitions of your work important for you? That other people box your work in a certain way, certain categories? How do you do that yourself? Is it important for you to do that or not?

SM: I just won’t be boxed in anymore; I’m done with that. People are starting to grasp that photography is not the end of my practice. It has a significant visibility within my practice, but I don’t consider myself a photographer. I feel like being a photographer is a performance as well. It’s not a real thing. There are people who spend their day and night thinking about photography, and they buy tons of gear and they’re obsessed with the jargon around how to take a photograph. They will check to see what the settings were in your camera when you took a photograph. And so many people, especially male photographers, they’re baffled about what I am doing. The question is not so much how you would get to make this thing. They don’t realise that there is body paint, that there is me in the image. There is an element of you not seeing me; you can’t see me; you haven’t got a clue of how I would come to be able to do this, and it is baffling you to the point where you can’t even see that I have the same face of what you’re looking at in the image. It’s not a huge indictment of other people. We know what the biases are, we know what peoples’ inherited ideas of women are, and I don’t want any of those things to be associated with me. I don’t get to choose that, but I don’t want to claim that either. So, I am just existing and, as an artist, I want my work to be representative of the fact that Black women exist and are making art, especially in a place like Scotland, where it’s not something that people necessarily were aware of three years ago. The thing about the work we are making is still fascinating to people because they don’t know how it’s happened.

AO: I don’t really think of myself as an artist. I am a multidisciplinary artist, because that sort of communicates things to people. I think of myself more as a medium. I am trying to communicate this thing in whichever form is more comfortable for you. If it is photography, that is what we will do, it could be drawing, or talking. For me, definitions were wishy-washy, and I was lucky enough to grow up in Kenya where definitions were not so important where art is involved. Especially because the British pretty much decided that we didn’t know what art was. The artists that I know told me not to get stuck in a medium. I had to find what I was trying to communicate and find the best way to do that. That really affected how I approached everything. That’s why with Memorituals it’s not really about the photographs. The communication happened when I was talking to the people, and the photographs just happened as we talked about their stories and who they were. For me, I am here now, but I am also in the past, and I will be in the future in some other form. So, form has never been a definite thing for me. When people say that my work is feminist; it’s a label that I will take and will grab and run with, because I came from a long and strong line of women with deep voices; warriors. So, if feminist is a way to say warrior, this time, I will take it on. I do make work from where I am. And where I am is not necessarily Nairobi; it is Sudan, it is Egypt, it is where my entire ancestors’ line has been and where it could go. But I am very sure of the people that I am talking to each time I make work. When I was making Memorituals, the photos were accidental. It was really me having conversations about fabric, ancestry and ancient intentionality with all really wonderful Black women who came from different places and were all in Scotland at the same time. I haven’t found definitions to be necessary; I think it’s on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think these conversations are universal.

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