weaving with myths
a conversation with Valerie Asiimwe Amani
Tail Tale, 2022
Valerie Asiimwe Amani is a Tanzanian interdisciplinary artist and writer based in London. Her practice interrogates the ways in which body erotics, language, place and perceived reality are used to situate (or isolate) the self within community. She has exhibited internationally including group shows in Lagos, Paris, Cape Town and Leipzig. Recent solo projects include a performance at South London Gallery in collaboration with the Roberts Institute of Art, and an exhibition at Alliance Française, Dar es Salaam.
From 2021–22, Valerie was a curator at the London-based arts and mental health charity Hospital Rooms, where she worked alongside Anna Testar on a project to commission fifteen new artworks for the inpatient mental health wards at Torbay Hospital in Devon. Six months after Valerie left the charity to pursue her career as an artist full-time, Anna caught up with her for The Signal House.
Anna Testar: Valerie, what a joy this is. I’ve lost count of the number of long train journeys and hospital canteen lunches we shared while we were working together last year, and the conversations we had hold a special place in my heart. Since our project ended at the end of 2022, you’ve taken the plunge and become a full-time artist and it’s been so exciting to watch your work develop and your career take off. But that was already well underway with the two amazing residencies you had last year: you were the South London Gallery and Roberts Institute of Art Performance Artist in Residence in the spring, and the International Artist in Residence at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, Ireland in the autumn. What was it like spending concentrated periods of time making work in two such contrasting places? Did those very different environments affect your thinking and your practice?
Valerie Asiimwe Amani: South London Gallery was really intimidating at first, because it was my first proper public performance. I’d done a smaller public performance before, but it was during the pandemic and it was literally on the streets of Dar es Salaam with people looking at me like ‘what the hell is she doing?!’. This time I felt like I had more of a message, and more time to develop the concept. But I also had this huge space in a really important gallery, with five weeks to do everything – from concept and development to the technical execution – so it was a bit overwhelming at first. But what I really appreciated about the experience was that it taught me how to work with a technical team, how to work within a budget. I had two curators – Ned McConnell from the Roberts Institute of Art and Sarah Allen from South London Gallery – and just having them close by to talk through my ideas and give me a bit of confidence was invaluable. So what started out feeling overwhelming eventually began to feel possible. That was important for me because it gave me the confidence to develop that side of my practice. I hadn’t really considered myself a performance artist before – I made videos and that was comfortable for me because I could just perform to camera and then put it online and not have to deal with people’s reactions. But there was something about the live performances that felt totally different. I did five performances in total and each one was different, not because the performances were different but because of the responses from the audiences. I had never considered how that affects a performance and makes it alive.
To dismantle a house, South London Gallery 2022
VA: The Ireland residency was just completely different. There was no output – I wasn’t preparing for an exhibition or a performance. It was more about engaging with the space and the community and allowing the place to feed new ideas. That felt really refreshing – it was time to stop and think rather than being in the constant cycle of making, making, making. It gave me a chance to experiment and have fun and be curious. I was in a small town – Castlebar, County Mayo – in a country I’d never been to before which is rich with mythology and history. I saw my first fairy fort, I learned about Sheela na gigs. There were symbols everywhere and it enriched my mind visually, so that even though I didn’t have to create work, I ended up doing so anyway. So it was a really enriching, restful, restorative experience, and I just love Ireland now!
AT: You couldn’t ask for more from those two residencies at that stage in your career. One that gave you an intensive insight into all the different aspects of working with a long-established gallery, and another that gave you space and time and complete freedom to let your mind explore and be curious and discover the culture and history of a new place. I remember talking to you when you got back from Ireland and being fascinated by the insights you gained into folklore and mythology and how ultimately timeless and universal they can be.
VA: Absolutely. I was particularly interested in the Celtic myth of the ‘selkie’ – mythological creatures that are part-human and part-seal, or mermaids – depending on who’s telling the story. And I realised while I was reading these myths that women never come out of things well. They’re either evil or they make terrible choices or suffer tragedies. In this story, the selkie comes out of the ocean and removes her magic coat, turning her into a human. The king steals the coat and forces her to be
his wife because she’s so beautiful. She has five children, and one day one of the children is playing and finds the coat. She thinks she can finally go back home to the ocean, but then discovers that she can only bring one of her children with her and the others will be turned to stone. So that’s what she does. I find these stories fascinating because they tell a history of women in reality – how they have been perceived and the roles they are given, and of course the notion of choosing between freedom and children is so relatable to this day, when women are still having to choose between a career and a family.
AT: It sounds like it was a time of deep research and reflection in contrast to the intensive productivity required at the South London Gallery. But the work you made there – a performance titled
selkie skin, 2022
To dismantle a house – also addressed a very ancient and universal theme.
VA: Yes, it stemmed from thinking about the meanings and boundaries of domestic space as a metaphor for other boundaries we’ve created around each other. Boundaries of public space, border lines, and also the politics of cleanliness. I was thinking about the house as a micro society for how someone learns how to navigate the world – how each different room has political symbolism. The living room as a façade that we can present to people and control how we want to be seen by friends and family. My memories of the living rooms I grew up in are very much about cleanliness – the couches were for visitors, the cushions had to be perfect. At my aunt’s house, if there was even a speck of dust or sand on the floor she’d immediately get a broom and start sweeping like mad. So for me, the living room represented the idea of the perfect family. But as you get deeper into the house, it starts to unravel. The bedroom is this intimate space, and that led me to think about people who don’t have that space or where the door has to be open. And then the bathroom, which is maybe a space for meditation and letting go and being clean. And that’s where the ideas around cleanliness come in. Hygiene is a human right, which is strange when you consider that a big part of the global population doesn’t have access to clean water. So, what does it mean to be clean and who do we perceive as a clean person and as a dirty person? And then this in turn becomes a metaphor for race and separation. I was also thinking about domestic space in terms of lullabies and children’s songs, which often contain questionable narratives of what is and isn’t acceptable in society. In the performance, I sing a Swahili song that says ‘Paul, don’t play with us because you have dirty hands’. That’s a kid’s song – so from childhood you’re taught to distance yourself from people who aren’t ‘clean’. I guess I wanted the performance to be relatable, in the sense that most people have had interactions with a house. Not necessarily a home, but a structure that is supposed to protect you or hold you. But sometimes that same structure can present violence or oppression or entrapment. What are the dynamics between these walls that we call houses, and what makes the difference between a house and a home? During the residency, I had a conversation with an Angolan artist and friend called Pamina Sebastião, who was also one of the contributors to the performance. They are queer and non-binary, and for them being able to have their own home and leave the family house behind was a huge moment for them. It was the first time they felt free, and didn’t have to lock the door any more.
To dismantle a house, South London Gallery 2022
AT: ‘Home’ is such a complex notion. It should be synonymous with comfort and privacy and safety, but for so many people it’s far from that, or simply doesn’t exist. It’s also interesting to think about these ideas in the context of the inpatient mental health wards we were working in last year. They become temporary homes for people, but they are incredibly complicated spaces where privacy is virtually non-existent and the notion of safety is so central to everything that it becomes something very different – more about control and observation and the removal of freedom and trust.
VA: Those environments definitely influenced me. I didn’t know that the sound of a door banging was triggering for me until I was in a mental health ward. I had always wondered why I got so emotional with the sound of a banging door, and then I realised it was linked to something in my past. It’s a sound that is linked inextricably with intense anger or danger. So I also had this moveable door within the performance, which I banged, and then at the end closed really softly.
AT: I imagine the performance spoke to a lot of people in a lot of different ways. It was certainly well-received and I wonder if that made the decision to go freelance slightly less daunting. How are you finding it so far?
VA: I’ve been self-employed before, but at that time I was running a small graphic design agency with my cousin in Tanzania. The cost of living was affordable and we had each other. But now, living in London in 2023 as a newly self-employed artist…well, there’s much more pressure. And I thought I’d suddenly have all this time, but actually the admin has had to increase proportionately as well.
AT: Does it still feel like you’ve got more creative headspace though, even if you’re having to schedule it in? The project we were working on together last year was quite full-on – we were regularly travelling back and forth between London and Devon and spending a lot of time on secure mental health wards while coordinating a complex project involving fifteen artists and an NHS Trust. I was always so impressed at the way you’d have the energy to head off to the studio at the end of the day.
VA: I definitely have a lot more mental space, and that’s been invaluable. I’ve also been able to understand more about when I’m at my most creative. I’ve realised that if I take the mornings to do admin, and then spend the afternoons and evenings in the studio, I’m more productive. And I’ve realised that not all days have to be studio days… having distance and time away from that space also helps my creativity. Research time has also been really important and not something I’ve had time for until now – it’s always felt like a luxury even though it’s fundamental to developing my practice.
AT: It’s such a significant part of how you develop as an artist and identify what you’re drawn to make work about – it’s the food that feeds your practice in a way.
VA: Absolutely – one hundred percent.
To dismantle a house, South London Gallery 2022
AT: The creativity versus admin balance is an interesting one. We’ve talked a lot about the lack of professionalism with which many artists are treated or perceived, particularly early on in their careers, and how the notion of an artist as a professional person who makes a living from their practice is often quite absent (even within the art world). I think for many people, an artist is either a fully established genius or someone who is doing it as a passion project while another job pays the rent. The amount of administrative work and organisation involved in having a successful career as an artist might come as a surprise.
VA: I had a mentor very early on, and because of them I made the decision not to seek gallery representation when I first started making art. So for the first five years it really was about learning and making and growing my network. And this year I think I’ve finally realised why people have galleries. They take care of so much of that admin so that you have more time to make the work. Being independent, I’ve had to work hard to get to the point I’m at now. But I think if I had got representation when I was younger, I wouldn’t have understood what a difference it makes and what I do and don’t need from a gallery. So it’s been helpful to realise that if want to, I can continue to be independent for the next two years and that’s fine. But if I got a gallery to represent me, that would also be a load off.
AT: Do you think there can be a risk that artists who get representation when they’re still very early on in their career don’t have as much freedom and independence to follow their creative path freely and instinctively? Because the gallery can mould them and encourage them in a particular direction that’s commercially successful?
VA: Definitely. But that’s no fault of the gallery – it’s a business and they have salaries and rent to pay. But I think when you’re young and you’re just making things out of passion and because you love it, you can overlook a lot of the other elements that go into it. I’ve had to learn for myself why it’s important to apply to residencies, build connections, develop people skills and so on. I think if you don’t learn those things early on, and off your own bat, they might seem overwhelming and then you become dependent on this business entity that at the end of the day you have to give work to. I’ve seen artists become producers of products, which is a pity. Maybe it’s lucky that I started out making videos and doing performances, which wouldn’t have sold anyway! I just thought ‘no one’s going to want this stuff – I have no commercial value!’
AT: And look at you now!
VA: Yeah, I mean these things have to happen naturally.
AT: You’ve had such an interesting path - you’re not someone who went to art school at 18, graduated, and then immediately started building a career as an artist. You studied economics at university, you’ve worked in fashion, in graphic design, and of course most recently as a curator. Do you think at some level you always knew, through all of those different parts of your life, that what you really wanted to be doing was making art? Or did you come to that point as a result of all the other things you’d done?
VA: I think it was as a result of the other things. I always knew I was creative – since I was a child I was always the weird one drawing on my clothes and writing poems to boys. Fashion made sense – my mother loved clothes and then I was like ‘OK I love clothes too – this makes sense’. When I started making art, I was in denial for the first two years. I just thought ‘this can’t be art, surely. This is just me expressing myself and things I care about and things I think other people should care about.’ I didn’t really think of what I was doing as art. The only access I had had to art was through movies and documentaries and it’s just as you were saying – my understanding of artists was that they were either really successful and made incredible, ambitious work, or were struggling to make ends meet. But then I began spending more time with artists and understanding what it meant to have that as a job and an identity, and then quite quickly realised that this was what I’d been waiting for my whole life. Art is a place where I can bring everything I’m passionate about – including the fashion and the writing – into one place. Once I had given into it and embraced it, well, I just can’t imagine doing anything else.
AT: It’s funny, isn’t it, how you had to give yourself permission to be an artist and say ‘this is a real thing that I can make a living from and not just for fun’. When you think of the impact that art has on our lives, and how fundamentally human it is, it still isn’t considered a ‘real’ subject at school, and certainly not a viable career path. What sort of position did art have in Tanzania when you were growing up?
VA: The artists that I had around me in Dar es Salaam were living very simple lives. They were living painting to painting and it was really precarious, in a way that made me understand that life as one of instability. The population of artists was probably ninety per cent men. It just seemed very unrealistic – it was difficult to see how I would make it sustainable – pay rent and just survive. I didn’t have any examples around me that made me think I could do it. I think that’s probably contributed to my denial or avoidance of art as a career, because it’s hard to get away from the notion that I’m just going to starve! And then my brother’s out there trying to be the next Warren Buffet, and my sister’s working in a bank. That’s why fashion made sense – people need clothes, I can make clothes. There’s a system of supply and demand.
AT: And how about now? It seems like there are some really interesting artists and projects in Tanzania at the moment. Is the art scene changing and growing?
VA: It’s definitely growing, but the commercial side is not growing in proportion. There are more people who are interested in the arts and more people who are creating and openly expressing themselves through art. But the market investment is not growing at all. And that creates a problem – the people who buy art are still mainly ex-pats and tourists. It’s still very young in terms of the buying market – it virtually doesn’t exist. There are only a handful of galleries, and when I say a handful I mean it – like maybe five in the whole country. There’s one big commercial gallery in Zanzibar and one smaller one. There are two commercial galleries in Dar es Salaam. One in Arusha. The rest are small arts and crafts centres. So it’s still quite small and that makes it difficult if you want to build your career there. But there are some amazing Tanzanian artists who have come out of the country recently. There’s a painter called Sungi Mlengeya who’s been doing really well, and then there’s my mentor, Rehema Chachage, who was the person who made me feel like ‘yes, you can do art!’. She’s doing really well, but she’s now based in Vienna. And there’s Arafa C. Hamadi who is doing really interesting stuff with VR.
AT: You’ve talked about how you’d like to live there again eventually. Is that dependent on how things develop in the art world? The way you talk about Tanzania is so full of love – do you think you would go back regardless?
VA: I definitely feel a responsibility to go back, but I think I need to wait until I’m more established in Europe. I would like to go back with some sort of stability to be able to invest back into the country – even just with a network or a grant that would help me do that. When that will happen, I’m not sure. I am interested in the educational opportunities in the field of contemporary art. The University of Dar es Salaam has a fine art department but the teaching is very technical and traditional – contemporary art doesn’t really feature. I’m interested in the kids who want to do weird video art and performances and expand, push themselves, be a bit experimental.
AT: And so you could give them what Rehema gave you – someone to encourage them and show them what’s possible.
VA: Me and hopefully a few other people who’ve had the same opportunities. Rehema has done her PhD in Vienna now. Arafa is doing really interesting stuff. I feel like if we were able to come together and create something in Tanzania, it could be cool.
AT: Speaking of being established in Europe, you’ve got some exciting things coming up this year. You’ve switched sides from the commissioner to the commissioned with Hospital Rooms and you’re now creating an artwork for a mental health ward in Kent. You’re also working on a project with Modern Art Oxford, and then there’s the small matter of a PhD starting in September? So just a few things going on.
VA: PhD! PhD! You know, this PhD was a ‘I’ll deal with it later’ kind of thing, but it’s not far away now. It’s the ideal next step for me in the way that it might not be for other artists, because I enjoy writing and researching. That’s central to my practice already, I’ll just be doing it with the support structure and the resources that a PhD provides. I think it will allow me to be super ambitious with the projects I do, and will give me the space and resources and network to do bigger things, so I’m excited about that.
AT: Do you feel like it will support and enable your professional practice then, rather than being something that takes you away from the freedom to apply for residencies and take on whichever projects and exhibitions you’re interested in?
VA: You know me…even if I told myself I was just going to focus on the PhD – I get itchy hands. I’ll be typing out my 60,000 words while making something else! I made sure that my proposal was something I was genuinely interested in, so that helps. I’m going to be looking at mythology, spirits, belief and what makes people believe things. Having grown up in South Africa and Tanzania and Zimbabwe, I’m interested in the belief system and how society runs and functions compared to the UK, where I’m living now, or the USA, where I have family. What is the right way? Is there a right way? Maybe it’s impossible for there to be one way of existing and it’s not even useful to think of life in that way anyway.
AT: I hope you find the answer, for all of us. It sounds so fascinating and so rich with possibility. I can’t wait to hear how it unfolds.
VA: Well, I’m not thinking about it for now. I’ve got a whole three months until it starts!
AT: You can get a lot done in three months. Lastly, can I ask you about the beautiful green artwork behind you? Is it sewn?
VA: This is another story which makes me so grateful for Ireland – I went down this mythological hole and I’m completely obsessed with it all now. This relates to a story of a girl who went missing in a forest in Tanzania. It was believed that she had been consumed by a tree, and became a part of the tree and a protector of the forest. So this is my interpretation of the girl turning into the tree.
AT: It’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing so much about your work. I could keep chatting for hours but I should let you get back to your sewing machine.
kandee kempha (WIP), 2023
VALERIE ASIIMWE AMANI is a Tanzanian interdisciplinary artist and writer based in London. Her practice interrogates the ways in which body erotics, language, place and perceived reality are used to situate (or isolate) the self within community. She has exhibited internationally including group shows in Lagos, Paris, Cape Town and Leipzig. Recent solo projects include a performance at South London Gallery in collaboration with the Roberts Institute of Art, and an exhibition at Alliance Française, Dar es Salaam.
ANNA TESTAR is a curator based in Falmouth, Cornwall. Her current project is a collaboration between Hospital Rooms and Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, for which she has commissioned twelve artists to create permanent, site-specific artworks for the mental health wards in Redruth and Bodmin. She was previously a curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Artwork images: By kind permission of the artist.
Photographs by Anne Tetzlaff, courtesy of Roberts Institute of Art.