A Kenyan painter casts a critical eye on China's role in Africa

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A Kenyan painter casts a critical eye on China's role in Africa
Paintings from artist Michael Soi in his studio in Nairobi, Kenya, on Feb. 13, 2020. Soi’s “China Loves Africa” collection examines the symbiotic and often corrupt relationship between Beijing and African elites. Khadija Farah/The New York Times.

by Abdi Latif Dahir

NAIROBI (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the painting, one of 100 on the same theme, China’s president, Xi Jinping, appears as he has in all the previous ones: a larger-than-life figure who commands attention because of the goodies he has brought with him.

Decked in a flowing white garment, Xi is surrounded by a crowd of black men — some with bald heads, others with unkempt beards — all reaching out for the dollars leaking out of a briefcase.

The work of a Kenyan artist and painter, Michael Soi, the collection “China Loves Africa” questions the guiding principles of Beijing’s engagement in Africa, scrutinizes the role of leaders on both sides in shaping the relationship and examines the consequences for ordinary citizens. The bright acrylic paintings on canvas have proven popular and polarizing and have offered a creative and complex approach to China-Africa relations.

But Jan. 2, after six years and 100 pieces, Soi said he was finished with the series, having drawn enough attention to the issue.

“I am ready to explore something else,” he said in an interview one recent morning at his studio at The GoDown Arts Center west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Soi, 48, has always insisted that his work should be viewed as social commentary, rather than an effort to influence policymaking.

Soi said he drew inspiration for the pieces from reading books, watching local and international TV programs and speaking with engineers who worked with the Chinese in Kenya.

“My work usually revolves around what Kenyans do or experience but don’t want to discuss,” Soi said. “I don’t seek change in my work. I document.”

Soi said that he was aware that he was ending this series at a time when China is becoming an ever more central player in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. As Africa’s economies and populations have grown over the past two decades, no country has answered the continent’s call for investment opportunities more than China.

China is Africa’s largest trade partner and is the biggest player in the continent’s infrastructure boom, funding and building highways, railroads, ports and presidential palaces.

But as African governments have sought closer ties with Beijing, many like Soi have inveighed against the partnership, saying it was “one-sided” and amounted to a new form of colonialism.

Western leaders, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, have warned against growing Chinese investments in the continent, saying they weighed nations under unsustainable debt burdens.

China’s presence in Africa has also brought forth claims of graft, bribery and environmental destruction, along with accusations of racism and discrimination against African citizens. Many have also questioned the commercial viability of the big China-funded projects, particularly multibillion-dollar railways in Kenya and Ethiopia.

In the face of all this, Beijing has insisted its relationship with African countries is based on political equality and “win-win” economic cooperation, along with mutual assistance in security and solidarity in international affairs.

In his work, Soi has questioned those premises, depicting China as the latest in a long line of outside powers intent on plundering Africa’s natural resources. One painting shows Africa as a woman being courted by China while Western countries, all male figures, watch glumly. Another shows African leaders, all asleep, while the Chinese take over the chairmanship of the African Union by 2030.

“No one is philanthropic for no apparent reason. All this generosity is suspect,” Soi said. “The bad leadership that exists in Africa is something they knew they could come and capitalize on.”

He added: “But let’s not forget, African leaders invited China. These corrupt politicians who are interested in massive acquisitions are the ones who brought them here.”

Soi, was born in Nairobi in 1972 to a prominent Kenyan artist, Ancent Soi, and a schoolteacher mother. While he has never married, he has an 11-year-old daughter.

After completing his studies in art and art history at the Creative Arts Center in Nairobi, he began his art career in 1995 as a sculptor and has always used his artwork to poke fun at the establishment. His pieces, bright and spare, humorous and biting, provide a visual diary of the social, economic and political realities facing millions of Kenyans, including pervasive corruption among the elite in Kenya as well as prostitution and the denial that surrounds it.

In his artwork, Soi regularly uses references to materials and objects that are uniquely Kenyan, like Tusker beer bottles or matatu minibuses.

“When I make art out of these day-to-day issues, I am not passing judgment at all,” he said. “I am only making a visual diary so that current viewers can see what’s happening and young Kenyans in the future will see how others lived in the past and what are the issues that impacted them.”

Barely a year after the “China Loves Africa” project started, Soi and other Kenyan artists were incensed when the majority of the artists selected to represent Kenya at the 2015 Venice Biennale were Chinese who had never been to Kenya or did not reference it in their art. Kenya’s first pavilion at the Biennale, in 2013, was also overwhelmingly Chinese.

In response, Soi produced “Shame in Venice,” a collection that highlighted the corruption and mismanagement he considers to be inherent in the relationship between Kenya and China.

“The Chinese came here as gods,” Soi said. “They think they can have everything they want, and in many cases they can. But it’s important for them to know that you cannot come and disrespect people in their own countries.”

As African art thrives globally, many artists are increasingly using their work to document and question China’s deepening reach in the continent. Among them are Tanzanian cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, popularly known as Gado, and satirical Ghanaian artist Bright Tetteh Ackwerh. Novelists, photographers and digital artists, from Zimbabwe to Cameroon, have also come up with various expressive ways of examining China’s expansive long march across Africa.

And Chinese officials are noticing.

In 2014, Soi said that four Chinese officials came to his studio and started lecturing him about how “ungrateful” he was for “all that China is doing for Kenya.” Soi, who has visited Hong Kong but not mainland China, said the group handled the paintings lying around the studio roughly and marred some of the artwork that was on display.

“To me, that was a sign that the Chinese are watching,” Soi said. “I have been told numerous times that there are people in the government and in the embassy here in Nairobi who don’t like my work.”

Soi has also been criticized for depicting women in demeaning ways. His “China Loves Africa” collection often shows women as prizes that are up for grabs by one imperial power or another. In one painting, a woman, representing Africa, is on a bed being fondled by China.

“The biggest critics of my work are women,” Soi acknowledged, adding that many people say he’s “obsessed” with the naked female body. But Soi argues that “patriarchy is alive and well” in Kenya and other African countries and that “I am following the men to tell the story of what kind of society we are.”

Soi said that as the father of a young girl, he considered it important to stare at these hard and unsettling truths in order to start a true conversation about China’s role in Africa. Asked if China’s investments were mostly good or bad, Soi said, “We can’t blacklist everything they have done. When you throw in the corruption and mismanagement, that’s where the problem begins.”

Soi has said he has sold 99 of the 100 “China Loves Africa” pieces, for an average of $3,000 each, and that the works are spread all over the world. He hopes the pieces will keep the conversation around China-Africa relations alive long into the future.

“My daughter will be paying for the debts we are incurring from China now,” he said. “The presence and impact of China will be here with us for a long time.”

2020 The New York Times Company

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