Grace Ndiritu – A Return to Normalcy

ByStaff Writer Anja Ivic

The exhibition of the artist Grace Ndiritu, open until December 12th is surely a the must visit site in Glasgow. Born in Kenya and a graduate of the Textile Art at Winchester School of Art and De Ateliers, Amsterdam, the young Ndiritu is currently exhibiting in the Reid Gallery, Reid Building in The Glasgow School of Art, an established art school and space for exhibitions. The multi-layered exhibition consists of artworks in many media: painting installations, photographic installations, video monitor, performance film and video installation. This show is her first major one since 2007 in the UK and it is the first time she presents a wider range of her paintings and photography. Furthermore, the Glasgow School of Art commissioned a new project by Ndiritu, An Afro-Futuristic Performance: Holotropic Breathing for the Masses, in which she invited 30 participants and led them to the Mackintosh Lecture Theatre to ‘re-activate’ the Mackintosh Building.

What most amazed me has to be the video installation Journey’s North: Pole to Pole (2009). Situated in an isolatedroom the end of the exhibition space, the video is projected in a dark room which gives a gloomy and mystical atmosphere. The black and white video itself consists out of scenes from Alaska, where the explorers left an indelible track on the human life and the tradition of the tribes of Arctic. Definitely, there is more to it than the idyllic scenes that look like they belong to a winter version of Arcadia. Ndiritu takes a case study of the Arctic tribes but manages to scratch deep below the surface of this particular story. As stated in the program of the whole exhibition, the video is “a meditation on the concept of Native as an ever changing identity.” With this Ndiritu’s work gained a universal meaning and its content could be applied to other similar examples of a path into others' culture. Regardless if we identify ourselves as the “explorers” or as the “natives” of a place, we are aware that the concept of the tainted native culture is present at every meeting of the “explorers” and “natives”. It can present a good thing as the explorers and pioneers bring many improvements and a chance for prosperity in many perspectives, but they can also be a threat to the native culture. The protective membrane of the native culture has been broken, never to be retrieved again. The foreigner comes with discoveries, with the aim to help, but ends up led by his or her own curiosity and selfishness.

Is this result an unavoidable repercussion of exploration? Or did the explorars intend to envoke such harm? In the video installation, Ndiritu clashes the visual material, the scenes from Alaska and sentences on the other side of the screen, colliding the visual and linguistic, the pure and the created. Language is a highly complex system of codes, made man for man. As Ndiritu confronts it with the natural scenery, she puts in focus the coexistence of nature and mankind in such environments that we imagine as cold and hostile. Also, the video is accompanied by an audio track, the voice of the artist singing to nature and the visitors, us. Her voice is almost hypnotizing and succeeds to appeal and pull us into this isolated space in which the video dominates. Not only does it dominate in this space, we bring the ideas from it into outer space and our lives, beginning to question the nature of us being “native” in a space, place, country, nation or world.

The art work can be viewed from several perspectives, of which a particular one interests me. The cradle of all of us is our non-detachable cultural identity which teaches us customs, practices, specific knowledge and behaviour. When that cultural identity clashes with others, unknown ones, the way we react is also taught in our birth environments. Do we become cultural chameleons, adapting to the colours that the society dictates? Or do we force out own cultural identity on the surface, being afraid to adapt to different codes of behaviour? 

The answer surely isn’t one-sided, as the questions which Ndiritu’s video installation asks are highly complicated. The fact that even our own position towards these questions tends to change as we grow is one of the points Ndiritu aims at. Our cultural identity, whether is it a “native” one or an “earned” one, grows with us over and over again, evolving according to our personal identity. What we do know is that we are all multi-layered individuals, able to learn from every encounter we get in, both enriching others and being enriched by others.