Hidden Realities and Contemporary Makers: An Interview with Amani Abeid

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Hidden Realities and Contemporary Makers: An Interview with Amani Abeid

Amani Abeid (b. 1986) is a visual artist based in Bagamoyo and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

He has been a member of Nafasi Art Space since 2013. For his recent solo exhibition at Alliance Francaise Dar es Salaam, Abeid was inspired by a 1973 book on Tanzanian tools and weapons called “Contemporary Makers”. He says “the title inspired me to think from a creative perspective and consider the context and roles of African ‘contemporary makers’ in determining the prosperity of the continent. In my works of art, contemporary makers are explored by their occupations and roles in the political, economic, religious, technological, environmental and cultural arenas. I use metaphorical visual language articulated with beauty, a sense of humour, and detailed patterns, all of which emerge from the background to form the central subject: the questioning and challenging of their offer of social change”. Nafasi’s Director, Rebecca Corey, met with Amani on the day of the exhibition opening.

(click any image to view artworks fullscreen)

THE INTERVIEW

Rebecca Corey:

I’m excited to be here in the gallery of Alliance Francaise with you, right before the opening of your solo show. Can you tell me about this show and what the preparation for it has been like?

Amani Abeid:

This is actually my second solo show, but in a new space for me. It is bigger than where I had my first exhibition, and so has given me the opportunity to produce large scale works, space to advance. I’m glad I can do that now. There has been a big shift in my work since my first exhibition. I’ve been working on this exhibition for more than a year. One of the works, Ultra-Influencer, I actually began painting in 2016.

RC:

Quite a few of the works have to do with the construction of identity. They seem to question how one can create their own identity – be it as an individual, an artist, a celebrity, or even as a nation – when you’re also subject to forces outside of you, pushing you a certain way.

AA:

Yes, that is true. I’m trying to reflect myself in what is happening at different levels of society, and I immerse myself in that. Who is being affected, and how can I relate to their experience? As an artist, I take that as a point of reflection and interpretation into the scenarios I observe. What first inspired me to create this body of work was reading a book by Robert Weill called Contemporary Makers in 1973. He was looking at tool and weapon makers in Tanzania. He was trying to make a record of that time. It was a catalyst for this work, translating it to a new life and a new perspective, to think about Tanzanian and African life in a global perspective. What are our lives like now? What are we making and how are we made? Even these figurative and abstract paintings represent real people and communities. Inside the works is a drama that is very human; even if you don’t see a person in the work, they are there. Their lives are there.You see, there are forces in society that push this idea of making us sing one song only, so we can’t hear other songs. Any other song except the one is prohibited. Am I also supposed to be an artist of that kind? Am I just a parrot? Do I just need to sing what has already been sung, just to please someone? I want to reject that.

RC:

You once told me that with your paintings you want to make the viewer into “a person who sees the hidden world of realities.” I was struck by this statement, because it implies that what is real is hidden, while what is seen is mirage, illusion, or mask. Can you talk a bit more about those ‘hidden realities’?

AA:

There are a lot of stories here, and to me, I see them as feelings. They are real ones. I’ve tried to put myself as a part of those realities. I don’t want to separate myself from what is going on. That’s why you can see that 60-70% of the works are deeply related to me. There are a lot of hidden things that I’m trying to keep inside of these artworks. They seem to be very beautiful, but when you go closer and closer, you find that there is something there, a hidden reality inside. That was the motive of creating these works. To get people to come closer and start to see those hidden things.

RC:

On that note, people talk about the personal vs. political. Some of these works have clear political undertones, but as you said they are also very personal. Is there anything personal in your political works or vice versa?

AA:

These works cross those boundaries of personal vs. political. When I was creating these paintings I was trying not to be a judge and pass judgment on these situations, but to actually include myself, to put myself out there, and allow myself be judged by others. I made my political works beautiful, and tried to use a soft touch. It can be very hard to make these complex issues sweet. You can create something else — chaos, actually. As an artist you have to see balances.

RC:

These works go across the colour spectrum. There are warm and cool colours, dark and light, but they’re tied together by your use of gold, which gives the works a sort of ethereal glow. Can you talk about the reasons for your palette choices?

AA:

I wanted to talk about this. In almost all of my pieces, I’m trying to incorporate gold and silver. I want to create a reflection, where there is a layer that makes the painting change depending on your point of view. When you put gold into a layer and keep another colour in the layer as well, it creates a reflection and differences in the colour depending on where you are standing. You may have one thought at a particular time, but at another moment it changes. I see use of gold to create these shifts in perception as a metaphor for that. It’s also a metaphor for showing the value of what I’m presenting. I use gold and sometimes shapes like the hexagon as symbols. For example, in The Reincarnated it’s like the gold is life that’s emerging from the side of my body, and the hexagons are there also representing new life.

RC:

I’m glad you mentioned symbols as there seem to be many in these paintings. Can you talk about your use of symbols and signs? What are some of the major symbols in this body of work and what do you see as the meaning they convey?

AA:

As an artist you don’t have to limit yourself in styles and medium. You use what you think will make your ideas more creative. You might have an idea but when you keep it too direct, it’s like someone who is nude and walking in the streets of Kariakoo Market. You might have a good message, but if you present it too directly you’ll raise other issues. You have to be careful. You have to clothe yourself, in that way the meaning of the work becomes even more powerful. If I painted something that is too direct, people won’t ask questions.

RC:

Speaking of symbols that appear in multiple works, what does the rat symbolize?

AA:

I wanted to make a hundred small models of rats. but the space wasn’t big enough to do them as an installation. I remember when I was very young in Tanga, my mother used to keep these dirty clothes in a big matenga, or even clothes we weren’t using. And one day I remember, she saw rats inside the matenga and she was very very scared of them. As a young child, I wondered, what’s happening? I started having this feeling that rats are a symbol of fear and something bad. So I portray them as being something scary. The rat is a symbol of destruction — they chew whatever they see. But in the painting The Everlasting, they are very selective. They only chew leaves of a certain colour and leave the rest. So it portrays the idea of allowing the voice of only one person or idea. You don’t want a shared voice, a voice of different tones and feelings. You want just one feeling, one tone, whether they like it or not. The people around you are silenced, just because of power. And people around you will lie because they’re scared to tell the truth. Therefore something becomes even worse, what lives inside that one voice. Danger and threats can live there. The rats in the painting are inside the green – destruction is there even though everything appears to be healthy and green. So there’s a feeling, that even if you have these diverse ideas, you can still end up with just one voice after all. A shared one — everything seems to be fine and balanced. The balloon cannot burst. But is this the reality that we want?

RC:

You started your career as an illustrator, but have since experimented with your practice and now you have found a distinct visual style. How did this develop?

AA:

My background was in illustration, I started out illustrating books and did that for quite some time. So I was always drawing the thoughts of other people. It was like being in a closed vacuum, hanging inside without getting out. But you find yourself wanting something that will keep you more healthy and real, so I started painting and presenting my own fresh, clear ideas without worrying about the outside forces, the market forces, like whether the work would sell. So being an illustrator helps to make a consistent living, which then gives the chance to create artistic work using original stories and inspiration from my surroundings to create my own ideas. Right now, it’s good to be both at the same time, but I keep them separate. We Tanzanian artists are being trapped by market pressures, so we end up making works that will sell quickly. But those thoughts are not our thoughts, not our real thoughts. With this exhibition, these ideas are very personal. Very, very personal, compared even to my last exhibition because as an artist I have the freedom of exploring, being unlimited, and being true to myself.