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Resurrecting the past

RESSURECTING THE DEAD: Artisit Kimathi Donkor

NANNY OF the Maroons, Queen Nijunga Mbandi, Yaa Asantewaa and Harriet Tubman are all legends in their own right.

They are powerful black women who have made a huge impact on various societies throughout history. They are also the focus of the new Kimathi Donkor exhibit Queens of the Undead.

Often overlooked as important historical figures in the West, Queen Njinga Mbandi, who fought against the Portuguese empire in Angola; Harriet Tubman, the underground-railroad leader who freed 70 people from US slavery in 1985, Queen Nanny who led the Maroons that fought the British in 1700s Jamaica and the queen mother of the Ejisu of the Ashanti Empire, Yaa Asantewaa have all been resurrected in paintings by the artist in order to be celebrated and take their rightful place in history.

In the first complete exhibition of painting to be showcased at the Institute of International Visual Arts, Donkor has chosen to display the defiance of these heroines in each painting. Depicting them at their most fearsome; either during battle or after a victory the painter said he wanted to show the true nature of his subjects.

“These four women were incredibly strong, resilient, determined people,” the 47-year-old said. “They also did something very unusual, they became military leaders, they became warriors, which was relatively unusual in all societies. These women not only defied class barriers but they were also ruthless killers, they were very dangerous characters that people wouldn’t cross too easily.”

Initially inspired to create the Queens of the Undead series after seeing the courage of seriously ill Jamaican women in hospital, the Bournemouth-born painter wanted to create a piece of art that would capture the strength of black women who fought to against all odds.


DEFIANCE: Queen Nijunga Mbandi meeting the Portugese

“I was visiting a friend in hospital and there was a group of women on the ward, all from a Jamaican background and all going through serious illnesses. They shared a grim optimism and I started to think about the struggle that these women went through to enjoy life and to find even amongst the worst pain something enjoyable. It also reminded me of the Jamaican national hero Nanny and the desire of the human spirit to go forward,” he said.

Despite the vital roles that these heroic ladies have played in history, they are scarcely known outside of their own countries, but that is something Donkor hopes to change with his exhibit.

“In their home countries, these women are revered, they are all national heroines. They are taught on school curriculums they are historic celebrities but in England they are figures that are less well known. They are not figures that have been portrayed in paintings or films, so I wanted explore them and to do something unusual.”

Another extraordinary part of Donkor’s paintings is that he has used dark skinned models for his art work. It may seem like an obvious choice for the average reader but, as the artist explained, dark skinned women are not usually depicted in the industry due to selective racism.

“I think this issue of racism in the arts is a very serious issue,” he admitted. “In terms of the beauty of dark skin, it is not something I have a problem with, although others do. It’s obvious that within the arts there is an association about the notions of beauty. And beauty whatever it might mean, is generally held up as something we should desire, aspire to and admire. So when you have a circumstance, which you do in the Western media, where particular forms of beauty are being excluded consistently and systematically for hundreds of years it can’t be right. I’m hoping that we can expand our notions of beauty beyond the narrow confines of the content pre-seen and hopefully as a painter I can contribute to that.”

Queens of the Undead will be at the Institute of International Visual Arts, Rivington Place, EC2A until November 24. For more information visit www.rivingtonplace.org

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