Kenyan Painter Cast a critical Eye on China’s Role in Africa

Michael Soi’s “China Loves Africa” collection examines the symbiotic and often corrupt relationship between Beijing and African elites.

In a lengthy series of satirical paintings, the Kenyan artist Michael Soi has depicted China as the latest in a series of imperialistic powers eager to plunder Africa’s natural resources — and corrupt African leaders as eager to play along.
In a lengthy series of satirical paintings, the Kenyan artist Michael Soi has depicted China as the latest in a series of imperialistic powers eager to plunder Africa’s natural resources — and corrupt African leaders as eager to play along.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

By Abdi Latif Dahir

NAIROBI, Kenya — In the painting, one of 100 on the same theme, China’s president, Xi Jinping, appears as he has in all the previous ones: a larger-than-life figure who commands attention because of the goodies he has brought with him.

Decked in a flowing white garment, Mr. Xi is surrounded by a crowd of black men — some with bald heads, others with unkempt beards — all reaching out for the dollars leaking out of a briefcase.

The work of a Kenyan artist and painter, Michael Soi, the collection “China Loves Africa” questions the guiding principles of Beijing’s engagement in Africa, scrutinizes the role of leaders on both sides in shaping the relationship and examines the consequences for ordinary citizens. The bright acrylic paintings on canvas have proven popular and polarizing and have offered a creative and complex approach to China-Africa relations.

But on Jan. 2, after six years and 100 pieces, Mr. Soi said he was finished with the series, having drawn enough attention to the issue.

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“I am ready to explore something else,” he said in an interview one recent morning at his studio at The GoDown Arts Center west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Mr. Soi, 48, has always insisted that his work should be viewed as social commentary, rather than an effort to influence policymaking.

Mr. Soi said he drew inspiration for the pieces from reading books, watching local and international TV programs and speaking with engineers who worked with the Chinese in Kenya

“My work usually revolves around what Kenyans do or experience but don’t want to discuss,” Mr. Soi said. “I don’t seek change in my work. I document.”

An artwork Mr. Soi’s “China Loves Africa” series. The artist has always used his work to poke fun at the establishment.
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Mr. Soi, who has been criticized for how he depicts women, argues that “patriarchy is alive and well” in Africa and says that he is “following the men to tell the story of what kind of society we are.”
Mr. Soi, who has been criticized for how he depicts women, argues that “patriarchy is alive and well” in Africa and says that he is “following the men to tell the story of what kind of society we are.”Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

“When I make art out of these day-to-day issues, I am not passing judgment at all,” he said. “I am only making a visual diary so that current viewers can see what’s happening and young Kenyans in the future will see how others lived in the past and what are the issues that impacted them.”

Barely a year after the “China Loves Africa” project started, Mr. Soi and other Kenyan artists were incensed when the majority of the artists selected to represent Kenya at the 2015 Venice Biennale were Chinese who had never been to Kenya or did not reference it in their art. Kenya’s first pavilion at the Biennale, in 2013, was also overwhelmingly Chinese.

In response, Mr. Soi produced “Shame in Venice,” a collection that highlighted the corruption and mismanagement he considers to be inherent in the relationship between Kenya and China.

“The Chinese came here as gods,” Mr. Soi said. “They think they can have everything they want, and in many cases they can. But it’s important for them to know that you cannot come and disrespect people in their own countries.”

As African art thrives globally, many artists are increasingly using their work to document and question China’s deepening reach in the continent. Among them are the Tanzanian cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, popularly known as Gado, and the satirical Ghanaian artist Bright Tetteh Ackwerh. Novelists, photographers and digital artists, from Zimbabwe to Cameroon, have also come upwith various expressive ways of examining China’s expansive long march across Africa.

And Chinese officials are noticing.

In 2014, Mr. Soi said that four Chinese officials came to his studio and started lecturing him about how “ungrateful” he was for “all that China is doing for Kenya.” Mr. Soi, who has visited Hong Kong but not mainland China, said the group handled the paintings lying around the studio roughly and marred some of the artwork that was on display.

“To me, that was a sign that the Chinese are watching,” Mr. Soi said. “I have been told numerous times that there are people in the government and in the embassy here in Nairobi who don’t like my work.”

Paintings in Mr. Soi’s studio.
Paintings in Mr. Soi’s studio.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Mr. Soi has also been criticized for depicting women in demeaning ways. His “China Loves Africa” collection often shows women as prizes that are up for grabs by one imperial power or another. In one painting, a woman, representing Africa, is on a bed being fondled by China.

“The biggest critics of my work are women,” Mr. Soi acknowledged, adding that many people say he’s “obsessed” with the naked female body. But Mr. Soi argues that “patriarchy is alive and well” in Kenya and other African countries, and that “I am following the men to tell the story of what kind of society we are.”

Mr. Soi said that as the father of a young girl, he considered it important to stare at these hard and unsettling truths in order to start a true conversation about China’s role in Africa. Asked if China’s investments were mostly good or bad, Mr. Soi said, “We can’t blacklist everything they have done. When you throw in the corruption and mismanagement, that’s where the problem begins.”

Mr. Soi has said he has sold 99 of the 100 “China Loves Africa” pieces, for an average of $3,000 each, and that the works are spread all over the world. He hopes the pieces will keep the conversation around China-Africa relations alive long into the future.

“My daughter will be paying for the debts we are incurring from China now,” he said. “The presence and impact of China will be here with us for a long time.”

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