Your works are currently exhibited at Akka project’s gallery, in Venice. The exposition title is “I exist!” and the cover image is one of your pictures from your work “Murky waters.” Can you say something about this project, and why do you think that it has become the open picture of the exhibition?
Margaret Ngigi (MN): I shot Murky waters in 2019 at the shore of Lake Magadi a 2-hour drive from Nairobi. It attempts to examine the challenges that women face in society by illustrating the positions we are forced into, and the situations that different groups of women find themselves in. Women empowerment is improving but still leaving women fighting for equality. The oppression of women religiously, socially, and politically is so ingrained in society that forms of it appear to be the natural order of things furthering this inequality agenda. I think four women standing by their joint presence yet individually isolated, creating an almost palpable tension, sets the exhibition’s mood and gives the audience a first impression of what the exhibition is about.
Your project focused on African women, in particular on the social role of the bride, like in the “Mke Mwema” project. How did you arrive to develop this topic?
MN: “Mke Mwema” translates to a good wife in Swahili. This is an ongoing bridal series I started in 2019, where I stage my models as who I see as a bride at the altar. Since I have been protected since childhood and now transitioning into a young woman, in deconstructing the sheltered reality, I am learning and unlearning what it means to be born in the female body in my society. It attempts to understand femininity and the marriage institution as a rite of passage for many women in my community. When I look at the women around me who are part of this institution, taking an example of my mother, I admire their strength. But I still ask myself, if I ignored the tribulations that marriage may come with, would my future self still like to be part of it?
What is your formal education? What do you think about the women issue in African literature?
MN. I have studied under the Kenyan formal education system since I was three years old. Three years in nursery school, eight years of basic education, four years at a public high school, two years at a public university; Kenyatta University, for my Diploma in Fine art, and currently in my fourth year at the United States International University of Africa for my Bachelor of Film production and directing. Many writers have and continue to develop in political consciousness, and consequently, the views of women expressed in their works continue to change over the years, it may be therefore difficult to find a completely uniform view of women in all the literature written by males and female writers.
In your works, studio portraiture is the primary approach you use to compose your narrations. Why do you prefer it from the reportage approach?
MN: I do not prefer one over the other; different inspirations or concepts will influence me to choose between a studio or an outdoor setup. Studio setups may give you more control over the shoot in terms of lighting and set design, while the outdoor arrangements will have you start to think of how you will compete with the sun on lighting and also how accessible are these locations you want to work with. I have found myself working in the controlled studio environment a lot because of the current body of work I have been producing, but I look forward to working in more outdoor setups in the future.
In your project “Women and labels,” you talk about the difficult relationship between women and imposed social roles. What do you think about the self-consciousness African women have on labels society imposes on them?
MN: By being self-conscious about these labels that have been imposed on us and by understanding what the negative results of having these labels are, African women are now able to identify the what are the key forces that continue to create a tough environment for us and how we will be able to deconstruct all the labels in order to progress towards of gender equity.
© Margaret Ngigi, from the series ‘Women and Labels’, 2018
What is decolonisation for you? How important is it for African women’s issues?
Decolonisation, to me, means unlearning and relearning who you are aside from the post-colonial forces that have shaped your life. Women lost their influence and power in post-colonial Africa, and the introduction of the patriarchy and new religions are tools that have constantly be used against African women. I think it is extremely important that we start by decolonizing the mind for us to be able to tackle the issues that face African women.
What are your future plans?
The future is unknown, but as I continue to blossom into womanhood and understand what it means to be born in the female body, I plan on working on more projects surrounding African women through photography and film.