Faults & Fissures
Kenyan Artist Michael Musyoka on our Failing Constructs Worldwide
Around the globe, as societies disintegrate, and superpowers dissolve into failed states, is this the point when the old framework falls apart and a new reality begins? Is this the moment when the imagination reclaims its pedestal, when artists are once again sought after for their innovative conceptions, their unconventional politics and paradigms?
In his latest series ‘Time & Other Constructs’, Michael Musyoka explores the framework of society, centering on the law, government, and punitive action. Do these social constructs genuinely function to regulate behaviour, to keep the peace, to establish an equilibrium? Musyoka imagines a world where we forgo legislation and surrender to our natural inclinations. He believes that “our laws put constraints on us. They inhibit us from being the animals we are.”
Musyoka’s provocative imagery is an attempt to expose the faults and fissures of our feebly constructed reality. Most of his latest paintings feature his self-representational big-boy, an image created to explore the human condition and examine our fear of retribution. His pliable self-portrait is recycled, in different formats, colours, and geometric patterns, in an effort to deconstruct our social programming, dismember our norms, and dissect our fear of rejection.
“It took a few years and many tries to create the character in my latest paintings,” says Musyoka. “I wanted something authentic.” Together with Maina Boniface and David Thuku, Michael Musyoka founded the Brush Tu Art Studio, an artist collective based in Nairobi, Kenya. “Boniface’s artwork is well known in Kenya, and he has his specific way of painting people. I needed my own style, something that reflects who I am and how I see the world.”
Until a few years ago, Musyoka had only imagined his big-boy from head to torso but at his recent exhibitions, spectators are privy to the full Monty, an overweight, clumsy figure, seemingly lost in this strange world. But this cumbersome character is more than just Musyoka’s echo. The faceless figure serves as an outer shell, which Musyoka allows his audience to roam around in, exploring the confusing relationship between our instincts and society’s rules.
As his figure study evolves, Musyoka’s stencils assume various templates. Running, kneeling, reaching out and falling down; these prototypes create the structure within the paintings of his latest subseries ‘Time’. The placement of each image on canvas is deliberate and the painstaking layouts call attention to society’s constrictive framework. Musyoka’s rigid molds also speak of our resistance to change and, by reiterating certain actions in motion, he emphasizes our stubbornness and our unrelenting, repetitive behaviour.
Of the many subcategories within ‘Time & Other Constructs’, Musyoka’s ‘Time Servants’ play a critical role in developing his concept. Time Servants are the lonely, kneeling figures doing time for their crime. “For those who dare to break the law, time has been made to stop, by the authorities,” Musyoka explains. In Part I of ‘Time & Other Constructs’, created in 2019, Musyoka’s Time Servants appear nervous and disgraced, albeit physically intact. But something has changed since then. Musyoka’s Time Servants are now riddled with painful warts or perforated by arrows and seem to suffer a deeper despair than their counterparts last year. Have the social and political uproar triggered by Covid-19, the lock-down, months of quarantine, elicited a more intense aching in the hearts of these outliers?
From a relatively smaller sequence of paintings in Time & Other Constructs, ‘Punitive Measures’ portray criminals being punished in groups. A motley crew of colorful yet melancholy souls contemplate the depths of their “depravity”. An even smaller subseries called ‘Downfall’ features Musyoka’s big-boy figures falling from the sky. As his various subseries develop, it is evident that Musyoka’s selfie functions as an alter-ego; "misbehaving", pushing boundaries and venturing into unknown territory. He uses his avatar as a tool to act out what is difficult in real life.
Musyoka compares the falling souls from his Downfall subseries to “disobedient angels, falling from grace.” They are cast down to an inferior underworld, home to misfits and rebels. This recurring symbolism invites his audience to question Musyoka’s personal relationship with the law. Studying his paintings, the line is blurred between what he has done and his fantasies.
Musyoka’s imaginings are created using an accumulation of techniques refined over the last decade. His imprinting through the repetition of stenciled figures reflects his experience at printmaking workshops, while the comic-strip effect hints at his time as an Illustrator at the Oxford University Press East Africa. His practical, clean-cut compositions tell of his fruitful career as a muralist after graduating from the Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts in 2013.
Michael Musyoka’s big-boy figure appears digitally superimposed on his signature paint-splattered backdrops. Like this, many of his paintings look like computer renderings. His competence with rotational space was advanced by his involvement in the State-of-the-ARt project earlier this year, a project run by JENGA CCI, in partnership with BlackRhino VR and Broken Metatarsal Productions. In January 2020, six artists including Musyoka were selected to use virtual reality technology to showcase their ongoing work. Since then, he has continued to play with visual dimensions, shaping his 2-dimensional paintings to produce a 3D effect. He maneuvers his big-boy figure into complicated positions, capturing its anatomy from different angles. Using diluted acrylic paint, Musyoka creates smooth, flawless layers of colour, with very few visible brushstrokes.
Using various sets of imagery within his different sub-series, Musyoka’s depictions probe our legal system, questioning its track record in serving justice. But the constructs he explores are not confined to the constitution or Kenyan law. They include our societal norms; the expectations by society that we are forced to meet: The 9 to 5, the “real” job, the elaborate wedding, the 2.5 children, religion; the proverbial white picket fence. Michael Musyoka studies human behaviour, specifically our willingness to submit to convention in order to be accepted. He asks why we are willing to be sitting ducks, to be hostage to a larger construct that we don’t subscribe to. Is it merely the fear of punishment that keeps us in check or is it something inherent within us?
Upon further analysis of his paintings, the striking reds and greens of Musyoka’s latest overtures reflect the stop-and-go tactics employed by government and other authorities in society, to control the masses and maintain the status quo. While most people think of society as something inbuilt or unalterable, Musyoka reminds us that it is not set in stone but simply a set of rules and principles that a group of individuals agree upon. Common practices are observed and, with the gentrification of behaviour, small societies merge into society at large. Of late however, our sooty life-manuals have proved impractical, antiquated, even lethal. With the harsh truth that not all lives matter, Musyoka looks at just whom the Kenyan law serves and protects concluding, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it is only a small elite that benefits from the current legal system.
In Kenya, more than a dozen people were killed by police during a dusk to dawn curfew to curb the spread of Covid-19. Security forces looted shops and homes countrywide. Rather than protecting Kenyans from the virus, they used excessive force to impose the lockdown. On June 8th, 2020, in response to these assaults, hundreds of protestors gathered in the slums of Nairobi to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Musyoka reflects: “I’m dismayed, though not at all surprised, by the brutality of the Kenyan police towards ordinary Joes. It brings into focus the injustices of the system towards those that hold lesser positions in society. While there is a genuine concern whether to make arrests and fill up cells with potentially infected people, there’s no excuse for the way our trigger-happy cops have played the role of enforcer and executioner.”
But aside from focusing on how society’s designated protectors are failing us, Musyoka looks at our psychological associations with legal restrictions. In Kenya, since the Covid-19 mask-wearing obligations came into place, people remove their masks as soon as the police are out of sight, sometimes even while they are in plain view. They do this despite the fact that mask wearing aims to protect their health and curb the spread of the virus in their communities. What does this say about their relationship with the authorities? After years of feeling defenseless, this reaction is not illogical. All around the world, people are less willing to comply with rules enforced by those who have betrayed them.
As Michael Musyoka shares more observations from 2020, he concludes with another truth about human nature, a more sympathetic one. “With the onset of the Covid-19, we saw the laxity of Kenyans in following the new regulations. Not everyone wore masks or respected social-distancing. This is an example of how the law is not the bottom line, especially when it conflicts with human instinct, in this case to be free of masks that create distance between people. Is there another way to impact change aside from coercion? I don’t know, but I do know that this pandemic proves that people need to be close. We really need and love to connect and to be seen, and nothing can change that.”
The world as we know it has shut down and we are waking up to new reality. But in the midst of the chaos, the artists seem most at ease. Having already deconstructed our politics, our performances and our prejudices, the eccentric changes in lifestyle are just a manifestation of what artists like Michael Musyoka knew could happen. In the wake of Covid-19, as the faults and fissures of society are uncovered, the artists are more comfortable than those who survived on the old set of lies. For many, it was inconceivable that the economy could collapse, that government could be untrustworthy and that the authorities could be the perpetrators of crimes. But at long last our lens has tilted; our perception overturned; our constructs deconstructed.
People are beginning to see society for the contrived nonsense it is. At long last, the pious who nursed on convention are the fools amongst us and those fallen souls, once banished from Michael Musyoka’s heaven, can return to their seats and reclaim their authority, as the philosophers, innovators and pioneers that we need to move forward inventively, positively, humanely. It would be a shame to devolve into a homogenized machine of our own creation.
It is difficult to confirm whether the time for new governance is finally here. What is clear however, is that we manufactured this machine and we can dismantle its parts.
Time and Other Constructs I showed at Red Hill Art Gallery in March 2019. Time and Other Constructs II opened August 29th 2020 at the One-Off Gallery.
Zihan Kassam is an artist and art catalogue writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.