STORY Ngendo Mukii

The Innovation Issue (13.3): In Conversation With Ng’endo Mukii

Kenyan animator, director and artist, Ng’endo Mukii was a featured speaker at the 2015 Design Indaba Conference. Her talk focused on the use of “documentary animation” to convert the image of post colonial / ‘indigenous’ people in the current media. We spoke to her to find out more about her practice, and how platforms like Design Indaba are instrumental in supporting innovative work in Africa. This interview appeared in full in The Innovation Issue (13.3) of ARTsouthAFRICA.

STORY Ngendo Mukii

Kenyan animator/filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii. Photgraph by Alex MacNaughton.

ARTsouthAFRICA: Welcome to Cape Town, Ng’endo! You’ve been invited to speak at the annual Design Indaba Conference for 2015, featuring some of the best of global creativity on one stage. What do you hope to achieve and/or inspire through your talk?

Ng’endo Mukii: I’ve been testing out some theories about documentary animation and how we can harness it on the continent for entertainment purposes, while also having some specific socio-political benefits from its use. Preparing for my talk at Design Indaba forced me to process these ideas more finely and work through them in the hope that they make sense and are convincing during my presentation and beyond.

How do you think platforms like Design Indaba are important in supporting or encouraging innovation in design and art?

It’s Design Indaba; beautiful minds from all over the world, intermingling their thoughts and challenging each other for over a week in Cape Town. The amazing thing about Design Indaba is that it not only invites those who are veterans in their fields, but upcoming younger artists as well, such as myself. This gathering of thinkers and makers from different fields, in different stages of their evolution, sparks connections and creations that would have taken years to create and even possibly would not have happened at all.

Your animation portfolio spans advertising campaigns, music videos, children’s animated stories and, of course, your own experimental work. However, it was your short film, Yellow Fever, which really caused the world to sit up and take notice of your unique style of expression. This was your thesis project, correct? Please tell us about the film.

Yes, Yellow Fever is my graduation film made at the Royal College of Art in London. It stems from my interest in the image the media has created of African women and how this has affected the way we see ourselves, our sense of beauty, and what we do to attain what we believe is beautiful. The title comes from a Fela Kuti song, Yellow Fever, where he criticises women for their use of skin-bleaching products. I have a different perspective to his though, where I see this practice as symptomatic of a larger social issue whose treatment lies in challenging these media-created standards of beauty rather than attacking those of us who fall prey to its seduction.

STORY Yellow Fever MUKII

Ng’endo Mukii, Yellow Fever (2012). Video still courtesy of the artist.

In your accompanying statement for Yellow Fever, you describe how “skin and… body are often distorted into a topographical division between reality and illusion.” Would you say that contemporary art from Africa suffers from the same division?

I was referring to the human body (especially female) performing as the landscape across which we enact our dreams and desires in terms of beauty. That which we desire can sometimes be so far from our reality, and we spend so much effort distorting and manipulating our appearances in the hopes of achieving this illusion of beauty. In terms of contemporary African Art, I’m not sure if this applies, especially so broadly.

Having grown up in Nairobi, you went on to study in both the US and the UK, graduating from the Royal College of London where you produced your award-winning film. How do you think this experience abroad influenced your practice in ways that it wouldn’t have had you not left Kenya?

I do feel that all the moving around I have done over the years has greatly influenced my work. I spent six years away without returning to Nairobi while I was studying at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and then working. When I came back home for the first time, I suffered an intense culture shock and what I can only describe as a ‘re-emptying of myself.’ This was an almost violent purging of expectations and assumptions and a constant battery to remould myself to fit back into the place I called home.

Going the other way had been much easier; this time there was no Student Services office, or Resident Assistant, or school councillor or Minority Students Group to help me ease into my new environment. Rather, at the end of a 24 hour journey, BOOM! I was home, and Kenya said, “Here’s your family, but they look different; here’s one you’ve never met before, she’s cute and cuddly. You’ll need to get a job, by the way. Oh, and there’s post-election violence. Good luck!”

The artistic and conceptual influences while at art school were very important in defining what direction I would take. Had I not gone to RISD I’m not sure I would have ended up in Film and Animation. At the time, there were no animation schools in Kenya and I did not even consider this as a possibility. One of the things that really helped me get into documentary animation was the Animated Realities conference I went to in Edinburgh in 2011. I had been struggling to figure out how to use some voice recordings I had made while traveling in South Africa. I couldn’t bring myself to use the recordings directly as I felt I was ‘cheating,’ having no indexical image to go with the sound.

One of my tutors at the Royal College of Art, Sylvie Bringas, could tell that I was struggling and insisted that I attend the conference. It helped me realise the relativity of film and photography as indexical media. In addition, my work was no less valuable or less important due to its animated nature and, thus, its lack of indexical imagery. In fact, it could be even more important due to this element. Without these influences, I definitely would not have made Yellow Fever or ventured into Documentary-Animation, or been exposed to this specific kind of critical thinking.

Coming home, I found that I was much more sensitive to the environment around me than I had been while growing up in Nairobi. The way people moved and talked; the rhythms; the clothing, food, heat and smells; expected behaviours, new buildings and open spaces. While at RISD, I started using scanned textures in my animation. Nowadays, I tend to scan in fabrics and use them to clothe my characters, or as textures for backgrounds.

I found that the colours here were very saturated in comparison to the US and definitely in comparison to the UK. I try to capture this, creating an authenticity in my work. I feel the combination of experiences from here and abroad have helped my work thrive. Especially as directors, each of us wants to have a unique voice to share and the journeys we take inevitably influence our work.

It has been said that you’re “paving the path” for other young, female filmmakers and animators from Africa. How do you feel about this? And where does this path lead?

I really like this idea! I’m not sure how true it is though. Perhaps with regard to animation specifically I could be inspiring younger women and men to explore the medium and find new ways to use it, and they may not have other independent (especially female) role models to help them realise what possibilities exist for them in this industry. With regard to filmmaking in general though, I feel that the path has already been and is continuously being paved on my behalf.

In the past couple of years specifically, I can point to Judy Kibinge of DocuBox Kenya for inspiring and supporting filmmakers in Nairobi. Not only is she a celebrated filmmaker herself, but she has also created a local fund supported by the Ford Foundation, through which filmmakers such as myself can receive training, mentorship, and funds to make our films. I guess I can inspire others in filmmaking and animation, but I would want to stress that it is a challenging industry and there always has to be a person or organisation championing and supporting the filmmakers for them to be successful. So yes, people like Judy of DocuBox Kenya, Kisha Cameron Dingle of Africa 1st and many more are the ones working behind the scenes and paving the way forward. The path leads to the future!

Your particular style of ‘documentary mixed media’ (including stop-motion, live action and hand-drawn animation) has been described as a “unique expression.” How did you settle on your current medium?

When I started off in the illustration department at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), I was drawing and painting most of the time. We were required to take classes outside of our chosen major in order to graduate, so I took a video course, and I immediately knew that I had to switch majors. I switched to the Film Animation and Video (FAV) department and found that I could experiment with all the things I already enjoyed, drawing, painting, printmaking, and photography and in addition, I had this element of time to play with.

There’s something strange and incredible about this that you take for granted once you work with film for a while. I was still learning how to use layers in Photoshop at the time, when a friend of mine took me through the process of digitising video footage and manipulating it in the timeline. I think I felt a little fold in my brain expand at that moment as I watched the play head move through the footage. I had feared that in leaving the illustration department I would end up in a very digital realm, but on the contrary the FAV department was full of sublime tactile pleasures. We were animating sand, sewing puppets, editing film on Steenbeck machines, using paper cut-outs, scanning rock surfaces.

Anyway, you asked how I came to my current mixed-media medium, and I would say it’s as a result of my fine arts roots, and the influences at RISD.

For the March issue of ARTsouthAFRICA, we are focusing on innovation in Africa, looking at cutting-edge work, digital media and creatives who are using innovative solutions and approaches to make new work. Do you think artists in Africa have sufficient access to the kinds of resources needed to create digital art? In your opinion, what should be done to encourage this approach to making art?

The type of innovation that is most prevalent on our continent stems from not having access to resources that are readily available elsewhere and having to create solutions that fit to our environment, and are sustainable because of this. Granted, there reaches a point where a lack of resources hinders development and prevents creativity, but sometimes we can wait forever for resources to arrive when the solution is around the corner. Curation could perhaps be the encouraging factor we need, whether it’s curation that leads to exposure or funding and resources.

You have spoken before about the pressure you feel, as an African director, to focus on topics or subject matter deemed ‘African,’ and how these kinds of ideals undercut their very purpose – to celebrate Africa. How do you find a balance between the two?

I think if you are passionate about what you are focused on, it naturally influences other people to be passionate as well. People will also adapt to the content you are giving them. I think due to the image that has been reinforced of Africa and African content over the years, there is an inclination to not only create what fits this mould but for our audiences to accept only what fits this mould as well.

Man cannot live on pap and braais alone. There’s more to Africa than orange sunsets and wild animals (though I do enjoy both and braais are pretty awesome). I think the balance is finding the right audience. If a Japanese filmmaker can animate a multi-hued glowing ball changing colour slowly over the course of minutes and find his audience, then perhaps we are the ones failing if we can’t find ours.

Art from Africa has, in recent years, seen increasing attention from international collectors. While some works are fetching record sums (£541,250 for El Anatsui’s New World Map, for example), many artists are still struggling to source the finances to fund their projects in the first place. What is your opinion of this dichotomy, and how do you fund your own projects?

Well, this problem exists everywhere and is not unique to our continent. I practice in a medium whose final product is usually infinitely reproducible, so such sums of money do not apply in terms of a single sale. As I had mentioned earlier, I mostly apply for filmmaking grants, or save up money and work on projects bit by bit. I think for those of us who ‘stick it out’ as long as El Anatsui has, there will be a higher probability of having our work recognised in the global art world in different ways, not only monetarily. Wangechi Mutu is one artist (Kenyan!) for example, so it’s not impossible, but just like everywhere else, the space at the top is limited.

It seems you are on the cusp of a very fruitful career; please tell us about your upcoming projects – what should we be looking out for on the horizon?

Thanks! Yes, I definitely hope this is the start of a very fruitful career! I just shot my new fiction short film, Birika (The Teapot), and I am raising money for post-production (no orange sunsets, but I do have a camel!) It considers what sort of world Nairobi would be if all of our emotions had a physical element to them. There’s a lot of surreal imagery, magical realism, blooming flowers and endlessly pouring coffee.

I have been developing a documentary animation, called SOS Kofi Annan and just got back from the Berlinale Talent Campus where it participated in the short documentary station. This film looks at Kenya’s political history through a very personal lens as experienced by my extended family.