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Ng'endo Mukii

What was the inspiration behind your RCA Show work?

Well, I was working on my dissertation, comparing the art of taxidermy and the use of early ethnographic films in the representation of ‘indigenous’ people around the world. I felt that both were very similar in terms of their reductive qualities, which are essentially necessary to communicate an idea of a species or a people in an environment alien to that of the subject/object. There was also the practice of ethnographic exhibitions where, indigenous people would be paraded during European fairs as examples of ethnic groups that existed far away on a dim, dark, desultory continent. In particular I focused on Sarah Baartman who was on exhibit in London and France in the early 1800s. When she died, George Cuvier obtained her body ‘as a matter of science’ and Enlightenment, and reduced her into a taxidermy on exhibit at at Le Musée de l‘Homme in Paris. While doing this research, I began to wonder what effect this sort of imagery and ‘scientific’ exploration had on the subjects of these investigations. How did such propaganda affect the ‘indigenous’ people of that time, and how does current media affect how we, as ‘indigenous’ people view ourselves today?

Travelogues is a series of photos reconsidering the concept of exploration, and imperial conquest. I combine panoramic photographs I have taken while traveling over the last five years with close up photography of the female body. By doing this I internalise the documentation of my journeys, while reflecting on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelogues, typically written by missionaries and explorers traversing Africa. These pieces came about while working on Yellow Fever and were made in collaboration with Alex MacNaughton.

My film, Yellow Fever, focuses on the effect of media-created ideals on African women and their perception of beauty. Our media is saturated (as is everyone’s) with beauty ideals that are hard to attain, often unhealthy and increasingly, harp towards Western media’s current concepts of beauty; ‘bronzed’ skin, long flowing soft silky hair. As you know, manyAfricans do not fit into this ‘ideal’. So, in my film, I consider the things that we, as African women, practise in an effort to try and attain these homogenised/globalised beauty ideals. These include chemically straightening our hair, the use of hair weaves, skin ‘brightening’ (bleaching), etc. I was particularly interested in discovering where the root of this pressure lays.

I realise we are only products of our society. Since our media perpetuates this singular ideal to our girls and women, and we consume this information continuously from a young age, how can we fault anyone who is susceptible to these ideals (men included), without challenging the institutions that are creating it? The title of the film is based on a Fela Kuti song, Yellow Fever, that attacks women who use skin-bleaching products (with the reduction of melanin the skin turns a yellowy tone). However, I use it to underline that I see this as a media-induced psychological condition, not very different to anorexia, bulimia, and other body-dysmorphia conditions that are recognised by medical institutions.

It took a lot of experimentation to come up with the general look and feel of Yellow Fever. The subject of the film deals closely with the skin and the feeling of being trapped within one’s body. The issue of skin politically and physically was crucial and I represented this through dance and pixilation (stop motion using people). I experimented quite a bit with the pixilation, and got some unexpected results with the bodies creating some disturbing and beautiful movements.

The fact that the interviews were with my family, especially my niece (who was 6 at the time), justified the use of animation for me as I felt their image as captured by a camera would be somehow too explicit. It also means that my niece sitting on the floor watching TV, can represent any little girl exposed to media and dealing with the images she is receiving. I wanted the interviews to be symbolic of a general condition and not just specific to the person being interviewed.

What attracted you to filmmaking?

My interest in art started at home. My father was an artist in his youth (before choosing a more ‘sober’ career path), so as we grew up he passed his love for art on to us. He would draw us as we ate at the table, and spent many afternoons instructing us on the capturing of light and how to use a pencil to measure proportions. After diligently testing each of us for artistic inclinations, I was the only child that remained interested in drawing the various fruits he would set out for still life studies.

As I grew older, this hobby became a passion, and by the time I completed high school I knew art was my future. It was while studying illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that I first tried out some video and animation projects. Suddenly I was introduced to the element of time and being able to control, warp, and travel through it, I was counting frames and changing f-stops and it was brilliant. The feeling was unbelievable! It opened up an entirely new dimension to work in that I had never even considered before.

It’s taken quite a bit of experimentation to come to this point, and my work reflects this path of progression in a sense. I use film, video, and animation, I paint and draw in (and on) my work, and within my film pieces I tend to instinctively employ the medium I feel works best for the content being explored.

Describe what themes drive your work and why you feel compelled to pursue them.

Mostly I am attracted to relationships. I love people-watching and when I work on my animations I get to pull apart and inspect the relationships that we have as human beings, whether it’s between different social groups, ethnicities, genders, etc etc. It is also a form of therapy for me. The difficult questions I deal with in my own life, especially those related to identity, tend to end up in my films and I usually find that I have addressed some sort of personal issue while working on a project.

Actually many of us in the 2012 Animation class dealt with issues that were very close to the heart in our films.

What would be your ultimate career achievement?

To be Ari Folman? Or perhaps Alexander McQueen.... mixed in with Rungano Nyoni, Pedro Almodóvar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a dash of Pekka-Veikkolainen-Hannes-Vartiainen, a squeeze of Jahmil X. T. Qubeka, and a heaped spoonful of Wangeci Mutu. Ummm.... It’s a little bit of a difficult question to answer... these people are amazing artists in different fields, my goal is to be more like them.

How does your environment affect or inspire your creativity?

I think the best part about living abroad for a while, is that when I come back home, I experience everything anew. All my senses are reborn. Everything is so saturated, and gritty, and calm and smooth and painful and beautiful. Every step has its own beat, and people, traffic, birds, animals sway around and into each other in their own individual rhythms. Children screech in laughter and play dibs in the street, the neighbour’s dog promises to tear you to shreds ‘if you come a single step closer to my gate!!’ and sweat prickles your armpits. Maize kernels pop over a roadside barbecue, while deep tangy masala tea pours into yawning ivory-white china. ‘R’s roll where ‘L’s should stand, laughter, clicks, thuds and the ruffle of a mitumba shirt licks the neck of the makanga hanging out the City Hoppa, with his chest pointing west towards Ngong Hills.

I don’t know... how can it not inspire you? It seeps into you, it makes you think differently. You become infused with the environment in which you live, for better or for worse. I do not think I would have made Yellow Fever without living outside of Kenya for a while... at least not quite the way it turned out. Traveling forces you to reflect in different ways, to withdraw inwards and spring out in a burst of colour.

What was the most important thing you learned whilst you were at the RCA?

I can’t say that there was one specific most important thing I learnt while I was at the RCA, especially academically... though living in the UK threw me through a social hoop more than I had expected. I think one of the most important things I did was I went to the Animated Realities Conference in Edinburgh in 2011. I had been struggling with this concept of documentary animation and how ‘true’ you could remain to ‘reality’ when using animation and art as a medium. I literally could not finish my projects, nor use the interviews I had been collecting because I felt I was lying when using animation. This conference was a complete eye-opener. We had so much discussion and intellectual debate. We watched many animated documentaries, and what we argued about after the screenings were issues of politico-socio bias and strength of research rather than whether the reality the movies represented was different to the ‘reality on the ground’ strictly because it was animated. I mean, we still discussed the validity of using animation over film, but that conference allowed me to understand that yes, I could represent ‘reality’ as I saw it in animation and remain true to the content and meaning of the topic or experience I was studying. It helped me get in gear and break the artist’s block I had been suffering. Without attending that conference, I do not think I would have managed to make Yellow Fever.

How do you think your practice might develop?

Well, right now I am working on a documentary animation called 50 Steps, which uses intimate personal histories to try to define what it means to be a Kenyan as we celebrate 50 Years of Independence. As is my habit, I shall be using mixed media (animation, film, photography) within this project. But recently I have started to work more physically, on paper, with charcoal and watercolours, and the experience has been extremely satisfying. I think, as I mentioned earlier, the content of my work is quite therapeutic for me, but I am venturing more into a sensory therapy as well, where the physicality of the process of making the work is therapeutic in itself. 

What’s been the biggest highlight of your career so far?

When I won Best Animated Short at the Chicago International Film Festival...that was pretty brilliant. I had been following the festival for years and was so pleased to be accepted to screen there. When the name of my film was called out, I was completely floored... I could not believe it. I had just come off a 20-hour journey from Nairobi to Chicago, and had slept for 20 minutes before getting ready and heading over to the awards ceremony. I was just excited to have made it for the festival, and then I won an award! Plus I got a Getty picture as a result... ha! That, as a singular moment, was definitely the highlight. In terms of a continued experience though, I would have to say that going for the Focus Features Africa First summit in New York was amazing. Five filmmakers were selected to receive a grant to create a short film, and we spent the week in intense discussions and workshops with our mentors who were so engaged with our work and had so much faith in our potential, they pulled our scripts apart and we inspected our stories from every angle possible, threw out some parts, made new pieces then put it all back together again... I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it was truly a blessing.

If you could re-live your RCA student days is there anything you would have done differently?

Ha! I love this question! I have laughed a lot thinking about the things I would have changed, but somewhere along the way, I also learnt about burning bridges (yup, I’m going to keep it mysterious). The question implies a sense of regret, and I did regret many things, but they are too far away now. To answer your question, I would have woken up earlier and had a smartphone from the start. 

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?

People like to see you, they want to know who they are working with and need to trust you before they fund you or support your work and all the lovely things we hope people will do to help our work grow. So get out there, get your face seen and your voice heard! Networking is not one night in a dimlight environment with a glass of wine in your hand, it’s a continued effort, massage those connections! It can be tedious sometimes, but when you genuinely connect with people, it’s much easier to build a long standing relationship with them and you never know how either of you could benefit. When your efforts get rejected (trust me, this is WHEN, not ‘if’) try to learn from it, dust yourself off and move forwards.

Yellow Fever Awards and Nominations:

2nd Afrinolly Short Film Competition, Voted third place in the documentary category

This Is England Film Festival, Rouen, France November 2013 Won Best Animation

Underexposed Film Festival, USA November 2013 Won Best Student Film

49th Chicago International Film Festival, USA October 2013 Won Silver Hugo for Best Animated Short

59th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, Germany May 2013 Won Special Mention in The Prize of the Ecumenical Jury

Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, Lagos, Nigeria March 2013 Won Best Short Film Award

7th Kenya International Film Festival, Nairobi, Kenya October/ November 2012 Won Best Animation Award

Africa Movie Academy Awards, Bayelsa, Nigeria April 2013 Nominated for Best Short Film Award

Colours of the Nile Film Festival Addis Ababa, Ethiopia November 2012 Nominated for Best Short Film Award

Encounters Short Film Festival Bristol, UK September 2012 Nominated in The Nahemi Student Film Awards

Enjoyed this story? Discover more alumni stories here.

"...many of us in the 2012 Animation class dealt with issues that were very close to the heart in our films." Ng'endo Mukii

MA Animation, 2012

Ng'endo Mukii
Ng'endo Mukii, Alex MacNaughton 2012