Under the cover of darkness: Art exhibition tackles sex and Nairobi nightlife

"We are Christian, we go to church, we don't engage in corruption, we do not engage in commercial sex work.”

Artist Michael Soi poses for a picture next to one of his works titled “Contemporary Religion” on display at exhibition titles Sex and the City III held at the Alliance Francaise Gallery on November 9, 2017. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

IN SUMMARY

  • Mr Ogonga notes that there’s a paradox between how society expects people to present themselves versus what they actually do.
  • “From 9-5 I'm that respectable banker,” he says, as an example.
  • “But then, under the cover of darkness, it doesn't matter anymore. During the day I'm supposed to wear the white wig and pinstripe suit that says I'm a lawyer. But maybe that's not who I really am.”

"We are Christian, we go to church, we don't engage in corruption, we do not engage in commercial sex work.”

These are pretences often used by people who deny their participation in sex-related Nairobi nightlife activities, according to visual artist Michael Soi.

Mr Soi’s words reference his latest art exhibition, Sex & The City III, which runs alongside the work of fellow artist Thom Ogonga until November 12 at the Alliance Française de Nairobi.

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The exhibition is the third in a series; parts I and II were showcased in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

The name of the exhibition is as risqué as the images it presents. Mr Soi’s oil on canvas paintings feature brightly coloured images of topless women, while Mr Ogonga’s black and white woodcut prints portray courtship between adults in sexualised environments.

But there’s more to the exhibit than images of large breasts, pursed lips and wide eyes. In fact, Mr Soi is less interested in talking about the nude women than he is in discussing the men ogling them.

Michael Soi’s painting titled “Theme Night” on display at exhibition titles Sex and the City III held at the Alliance Francaise Gallery on November 9, 2017. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

‘YOU COULD NEVER BE SO WRONG’

He says that society perpetuates a stereotype that only idle men go to strip clubs and similar establishments.

“You could never be so wrong,” he tells Nation.co.ke. “This is your banker, this is your brother, this is your uncle, this is your dad. These are people who you basically have an interaction with every single day of the week.”

Mr Ogonga notes that there’s a paradox between how society expects people to present themselves versus what they actually do. “From 9-5 I'm that respectable banker,” he says, as an example. “But then, under the cover of darkness, it doesn't matter anymore. During the day I'm supposed to wear the white wig and pinstripe suit that says I'm a lawyer. But maybe that's not who I really am.”

CONTROVERSIAL WORK

Both artists are aware that their work is controversial. When the exhibition launched in 2014, some members of the public called for it to be closed down.

Mr Ogonga during the interview at Alliance Française de Nairobi. His black and white woodcut prints are featured alongside Michael Soi's work in the exhibition titled Sex & The City III which runs until November 12. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU  

They alleged that the work of artist John Kamicha - which was presented in Part I of the series - was blasphemous, because it featured a representation of Jesus Christ alongside images of naked women.

In an e-mail interview, Harsita Waters, Head of Alliance Française’s Cultural Affairs, told Nation.co.ke that the Alliance Française de Nairobi supports showcasing work that not everyone may agree with because “artists are the windows and witnesses of our society.”

She added that art and freedom of expression are vital elements in a democratic society.

Michael Soi’s painting titled “Ladies and Gentlemen” on display at exhibition titles Sex and the City III held at the Alliance Francaise Gallery on November 9, 2017. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

“Society likes to sweep issues under the carpet instead of discussing real issues for fear of being judged for their opinions,” Ms Waters stated. “However, discussing controversial subjects are necessary for an enlightened society that can find solutions to problems and further our cultural intellect as a whole society.”

Michael Soi’s painting titled “Puss in Boots” on display at exhibition titles Sex and the City III held at the Alliance Francaise Gallery on November 9, 2017. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

Mr Soi also feels that holding a mirror to society is an integral part of his job. He told Nation.co.ke: “For me as an artist, I felt like this is something that I needed to talk about. Irrespective of whether people like it or not, I have chosen to work on it because it is something that is happening in this country.”

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