The weight of evidence, though, points towards the latter (anthropologists believe the practice began in India). If that is the case – and it probably is, since kissing isn’t universal (there are apparently many Amazonian tribes that do not kiss at all) – then it stands to reason that people are more likely to be at ease with kissing (in public and private) if they grow up in a culture in which kissing is not only accepted as a regular part of life but witnessed as such, and often. And, equally important, learned behaviour means we (humans) need a lot of practice to become good at it. That can only happen if you’re in an environment that allows you to get lots of practice.
This would explain the stiffness, awkwardness and timidity mentioned by some of the respondents in British-Nigerian film-maker and video artist Zina Saro-Wiwa’s video installation Eaten By The Heart. She conceived, produced and directed the installation for the Menil Collection’s The Progress of Love exhibition. It’s a 3-venue exhibition, so it’s also on at the Pulitzer Foundation, St. Louis, and the Centre For Contemporary Art in Lagos.
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Of course one can always practice in private, but if a reluctance to display affection in public isn’t the only reason you don’t often see Africans kiss, then the discomfort isn’t going to melt away when they’re in private.
In my experience, we become more comfortable with the practice with each generation. Children of the 70s, 80s and 90s are definitely more comfortable with kissing in public than their parent’s generation (40s, 50s and 60s). I have friends who never ever saw their parents kiss. Hug, maybe, but not kiss. Whereas I’ve seen these same friends exchanging deep kisses with girlfriends/boyfriends, and they didn’t seem particularly self-conscious about it. I have to say, though, this was mostly among friends in Europe. I’ve seen friends in Nigeria kiss, too, but not often.
Other love-related questions are posed and answered in Eaten By The Heart – it’s always difficult to talk about heartbreak, isn’t it? – but my guess is that it’s the kissing question that will form the basis of most conversations about the video among Africans.
What’s your experience? Are you comfortable kissing and do you kiss often? In public? Are you only comfortable doing so when you’re abroad? Did your parents often kiss each other in your presence? Do your African friends seem comfortable kissing in public?
Eaten By The Heart forms part of Zina’s video performance practice which currently focuses on the mapping of emotional landscapes, its resulting performative behaviours and cross-cultural implications. She states: “So many of us cite with confidence that Love Is Universal. But the performance of love is, it seems, cultural. I wonder how the impact of how we choreograph and culturally organize the performance of love impacts what we feel inside and who we become.”
Zina Saro-Wiwa was cited last year by Time Magazine as one of the top 25 Africans transforming the way the world sees Africa.