A collaboration between Kenyan photographer Rich Allela and Nigerian photographer Dapel Kureng left us in collective awe at the artistry and breathtaking creative photography that the pair used to bring one of Africas most iconic heroines to life.
For those who may not have learned about her due to education syllabuses skewed towards the colonial narrative of our history, Mekatilili Wa Menza was a Kenyan female leader, who led the Giriama people in a rebellion against the British Colonial Administration and policies actively in 1913 – 1914.
The story goes that a prophecy foretold that a saviour would go against British oppression. No one guessed that it would be Mnyazi wa Menza (Mekatilili Wa Menza). An only girl among five children, born to poor parents in Mutsara wa Tsatsu, a village of the Giriama sometime between 1840 and 1860. Mekatilili rose to her destiny due to agitation with the British conscripting Giriama men to fight in World War I. She was also driven by what she saw as erosion of traditional Giriama culture. The Giriama; a patrilineal community; rarely allowed women to hold leadership positions. However, Mekatilili a widow, was able to speak before the elders. She garnered incredible support for her cause against the British due to the position she had attained as a strong believer of the traditional religion.
The British responded by seizing large tracts of Giriama land, burning their homes and razing sacred dwelling places leading to the Giriama Uprising, known locally as kondo ya chembe. Mekatilili was then arrested by the British on 17 October 1913 and exiled to Mumias in Kenya’s Western Province. According to British colonial records, five years later, she returned to her native area where she continued to oppose the imposition of Colonial policies and ordinances. However, some narratives say that Mekatilili escaped from the prison in Mumias and walked over 1,000 kilometers back home to Giriama. This instilled fear in the colonial master causing her recapture and instigating the uprising of October 25, 1914. Although the British had the upper hand, they were unable to gain total control and eventually, yielded to the demands of the Giriama people. She later died in 1924, and was buried in Bungale, in Magarini Constituency, Malindi District.
Despite the fact that numerous ideologies from time immemorial have oppressed, caged, trodden, abused and discriminated against the woman and her core, gender inequality has also provoked her to be referred to as one who is to be seen and not heard and to crown it all, cultural moves, beliefs and practices in the world at large and in Africa particularly, have justified this unnatural behavior. Gratefully, women like Mekatilili of Kenya have been bold enough to step forward, rising beyond the embargo placed on them by society to express their inner strength and worth.
Contestations over potrayal
So where does the controversy come from? Why is the reception of this inspired collection receiving mixed reactions and proving to be more controversial than celebrated? The answer is historical accuracy. The collection although striking and creatively exploratory does not account for the nuances that would be expected in a collection showcasing one of the most an iconic heroines of that era.
To begin with the costumes and slightly ridiculous props do not reflect the rich Giriama culture. Hando is the name for the traditional short skirt worn by women of the Giriamas and which was worn by their heroine and warrior, Mekatilili wa Menza. The Hando is made of a long material, preferably cotton, gathered into folds to give the special rounded shape that enhances women’s hips. It is generally an immaculate white, but some women prefer it in a combination of green, red, blue, black or other colours, all of which have varied meanings. The Hando is more than just the cloth, it is also about the ornaments that go with it. From the legs, festooned with rare multi-coloured beads, bangles on the arms and hands and specially made necklaces are what bring out the Mijikenda woman’s beauty.
Then to the landscape. The county in which the Giriama inhabits is not arid by any measure nor would there be horses at the time. And finally and what I think stands out the most is the artist direction. The photographers choose to place the model in power stances which is commendeble but not what she was known for. Mekatilili was most known for, aside from her fierce rebellion against oppression, how she rallied support. She gained large audiences through her performance of the kifudu dance. The dance was a reserve for funeral ceremonies but Mekatilili performed it constantly from town to town, attracting a large following that made up her rebellion. You would think the dance that garnered her support and is the stuff of legends would provide the basis for the pictures.
Historical inaccuracies aside the photographers took the bold step to finally depict and immortalize this heroine in a fantastical manner that may be closer to what a lot of Kenyan children picture in the modern day. And many would argue that in a climate where Afrofuturism is thriving factual depictions are not rave nor what the style is built on. But even in Afrofuturism artists attempt to stay true to their subjects or subject matter even in the fantastical worlds they create and is probably the reason they stay away from the responsibility that comes with legendary subjects.
All in all for their boldness we say kudos and it will be something to see what else they will have in store. Hopefully their next ventures will be truer to their subject without hampering their artistic license which we can all agree resulted in stunning photography.
The girl child in me is however screaming for a more factual visual series or dare I say biopic by one Wangechi Mutu? A girl can dream.