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Kimathi Mafafo's Inner Nature

It is easy to see how the lush, green tropical settings that define Kimathi Mafafo’s exhibition, Alone in Spring, at Ebony/Curated, have taken root in her barren, cramped studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. This verdant, life-affirming season which colonises every inch of her canvases and embroidered works, offers a very pleasing escape for the Kimberley-born artist, who featured in last month's Women's Eye II Artcrawl. A natural setting allows for a break from city life, and other social pressures and duties (she is a busy mother) and entry into a psychic space where she feels relaxed and at peace with herself, she says. Her subjects are quasi biographical though not strictly modeled on her. She is much too shy to depict her naked body in her art; these stand-ins enact an activity she might yearn for. She implies that she wants to make peace with her body, appearance, as a mother, whose physique has been altered through child birth, rearing. The title of a small embroidered work, Metamorphosis, speaks of transformation and indeed the fully-figured female figure depicted in the characteristic green vegetation does not fit a fashion-magazine ideal.

Her models are voluptuous with sagging breasts and tummy rolls. Yet they are seemingly at ease, comfortable with their bodies. They are not fierce, proud or aggressive figures confronting the viewer with their identity and presence as has become de rigeur for artist’s driving a strong feminist line. In fact Mafafo’s subjects exist as if in isolation of a viewer – hence the title – ‘alone’. The absence of this desire to be looked at and appreciated, valorized, accepted, is what truly affords them freedom and peace perhaps not the setting itself. In this, Mafafo may have put her finger on an aspect which so many of the young feminists on the art scene have overlooked or struggled to negotiate; claiming visibility without needing to be constantly visible. Mafafo’s seems to have figured out how to present a naked female form without it appearing to be objectified. In this way she rallies against not only a heavy, patriarchal history of painting, which has centred on the female form but one in which the black woman as the object/subject of beauty has been glaringly absent.

The mosquito net, which appears in almost every work, is an important device or prop in advancing this. How it is employed in each image reveals her subject’s relationship to themselves and/or the world. This is a nuanced reading of existence, which is never fixed. In the painting Reverence, and the embroidered work, Embolden, the female subject is completely covered in a transparent mosquito net. “She needs some protection from nature, it is a threat,” says Mafafo, but it is also likely that the positioning of the net speaks of a weariness around visibility, being seen and a desire to withdraw (partially). Mafafo implies through her art that an act of liberation cannot be done for others – does not need a witness to be authentic. Her subjects are not posing for others, but for themselves. Mafafo is therefore, not enacting these scenes over and over for the viewer but for herself – affirming her space, creating it and living it., though only through her art. Since her first major solo exhibition in 2015 she has been painting various versions of the same scene. The tropical setting, the naked black woman and the net are reconfigured into different compositions but always present. The consistency of these elements has allowed her to evolve her technical abilities as a painter – she is getting better at it, though in some works you can’t help yearning for a more hyper-real rendering.

Machine embroidery has further extended her language, adding a textural feel that recalls her sartorial leanings. This medium allows for a more dense and thick foliage surrounding her subjects, evoking a sense of embeddedness in the space that is in contrast to the sense of freedom and lightness that the paintings capture so well. The woman in Cradle of Womankind painting looks as if she is taking time out during a holiday in Bali. You can almost feel the warm balmy breeze. Not all her subjects allow themselves to be transported. Withdrawn III presents a bespeckled woman holding a piece of fabric to her naked body. She hasn’t found the confidence yet to wind down and let go. So while Mafafo appears to paint the same scene, there are subtle and not so subtle differences. It is also through this sense of repetition that she trains our eye and society to ‘accept’ this woman – this fully figured black woman. In these leafy settings she is not only presented as beautiful, but we desire to be in place, while she vicariously lives out a sense of peace and tranquility that escapes most of us. First published in Business Day

Alone in Spring shows at the Ebony/Curated gallery in Cape Town until October 27. Mafafo featured in Corrigall's Women's Eye II Art Crawl


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