What you need to know:
- Both sharing the theme, The Pride of Origins, the Naivasha-based Malisa has previously exhibited in Nairobi at Circle Art Gallery and at Alliance Francaise.
- But Amy Morton of the Morton Fine Art Gallery in Washington found Malisa on Instagram, the social medium currently accommodating many local fine artists.
- Nonetheless, while visiting Kenya in 2019, Morton found her way to Circle Art where she got an even better impression of Malisa’s organically-based artistry.
Having transformed a hay-filled barn into a giant home studio, Malisa Kiasuwa has been working throughout the Covid-19 lockdown preparing for two exhibitions currently underway overseas. One is in Washington, DC, while the other is in London.
Both sharing the theme, The Pride of Origins, the Naivasha-based Malisa has previously exhibited in Nairobi at Circle Art Gallery and at Alliance Francaise. But Amy Morton of the Morton Fine Art Gallery in Washington found Malisa on Instagram, the social medium currently accommodating many local fine artists.
Nonetheless, while visiting Kenya in 2019, Morton found her way to Circle Art where she got an even better impression of Malisa’s organically-based artistry.
“Amy was and still is interested in featuring contemporary African art at her gallery, which is how she got to know me,” says the Belgian-Congolese artist whose 21 collages and wall hangings featured in her first solo show in DC from June 2to 22.
Meanwhile, another 16 of Malisa’s collages are featuring now at the Sulger-Buel Gallery in London, where the artist has set her soulful spotlight on not just the Pride of Origins but specifically on the notion of ancestry.
Malisa works with an array of mixed media, including organic materials like raffia grass, sisal rope, handmade papers, scraps of fabric, and threads made out of cotton and silk, silver and gold. She blends them with found objects that she collects during her frequent walks around the lake and Naivasha town.
The upcycling of found objects appeal to the artist’s concern for conservation. Her use of organic materials reflects her desire to stay close to the purity of nature. But during the lockdown, Malisa reflected upon all the many clashing contradictions festering in the world, including the ‘virus of racism’ and the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of white supremacy.
An example of reconciliation
She desires to see the reconciliation of these extremes, a coming together of disparate elements in the name of peace.
“I see myself as an example of reconciliation since my background is both European and African,” says Malisa.
In a sense, both exhibitions are about Identity, reconciliation, and ‘the pride of origins’. These themes are symbolised most visibly in her London show where she includes collages that combine engraved portraits of 18th-century European aristocrats upon whose faces Malisa has affixed wooden West African masks (the kind that enthralled Western artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse).
“I found the engravings of my [Swiss] husband’s ancestors in an attic of his family’s home,” says Malisa who saw the etchings had been forgotten, so she brought them back to Kenya where she and her family have been living since 2013.
Treating them like the other ‘found objects’ that she uses to upcycle into her art, the masks superimposed on the faces of these bourgeois white men are meant to symbolize what reconciliation might look like. Yet the juxtaposition of the two-dimensional etchings and the three-dimensional masks could also be interpreted in other ways, either to amuse or to annoy.
There’s an irony of her embellishing the men’s portraits with African masks which had once been used in sacred rituals and infused with mystical powers. At the same time, Western aristocrats are not the only ‘nobility’ in the London show.
Malisa herself comes from West African nobility. “My father’s ‘tribe’ is Ndongo, the same one as Queen Zinga [or Nzinga] of Congo,” she recalls. Noting that Zinga was renowned for her military and diplomatic leadership which is credited for fending off Portuguese colonialism and slave trade for over 30 years.
Zinga is often identified as coming from Angola, but Malisa explains the Ndongo kingdom, before the colonial carving up of Africa in the 19th century, traversed northern Angola as well as southern Congo.
“Our people had lived on the border of what is now Congo,” says Malisa, adding that she wants her children to take pride in their shared ancestry.
In both exhibitions, there is at least one explicitly autobiographic collage featuring a mug shot of the artist wearing a crown, either made of hand-made paper or animal skin. As if enthroned in her exhibition just as Queen Zinga headed her vast kingdom, the letter ‘Z’ is emblazoned on each crown, standing at once for Zinga and for Zaire, which was the name of her country at the time that she was born.