My Mothers Mother


Commissioned by the Iwalewahaus, Bayreuth, Germany for their exhibition Future Africa: Visions in Time, My Mother’s Mother was born out of Syowia’s research into the role of women in contemporary society, concentrating specifically on the middle classes in Germany and Kenya. Conceived as an entire room installation whose elements fuse women’s voices from both German and Kenyan urban middle-class spaces, this work creates both domestic and public references with its use of different wallpapers, floor laminates, curtains, and ceramic cups. 

Delving into the complex historical and contemporary sociological issues surrounding women’s roles in society and gender equality in both countries, the artist highlights uncomfortable truths about the progress and place of women in the 21st Century. In this work, the cups are suspended in the room at varying heights, on strings that on closer inspection are identifiable as sound cables through which the recorded voices of several women recount their experiences, thoughts, and interviews with the artist both in German and in Swahili. Glued to the saucers and placed at various angles, upside down, sliding off their support, mismatched, chipped, and by no means homogeneous, the cups function as the women’s mouthpieces and emphasize diversity, fragility, and strength. 

The voices and pieces of texts read out as part of this installation pinpoint the hand me downs of traditional ideology that for centuries has placed women in the kitchen with the main task of being a good wife and mother. These are universal stories that question where the development of feminism has left contemporary European women, who still face issues such as gender pay gap, discrimination at work and are expected both to contribute to the financial well being of the family whilst carrying the burden of being the primary caregiver. They also touch upon the coded contexts of traditional matriarchal structures in African societies, originally subverted by Victorian gender ideals superimposed by colonialism and now increasingly breaking down as the rapidly urbanizing middle classes embrace western ideologies influenced by the consumer market.

Room installation with wallpaper, laminate floorboards, tea & coffee cups and saucers & sound

2015 – 2016

3.45 x 3.4 x 3.18 m

Iwalewahaus, Future Africa: Visions in Time, Bayreuth, Germany
The contemporary German landscape presents a society concerned with maintaining income security. The main income earners are still for the majority men. Women with same career status as their male counterpart still earn 20% less, it is then no surprise that women take on the role of the main care giver; balancing career, running an ‘effective’ household and being a ‘good’ wife. These are all very real pressures of presenting happiness. The backdrop of Germany’s history in terms of its response to the role of the woman in the traditional family structure seems to be persistently influencing its contemporary women.

The Kenyan society is layered with the negotiation of traditional and modern values. The differences of these values within the different tribal groupings, the Western interpretation of what these ways of being are, how they function, the African idea of what is Western and what Western aesthetics are is constantly being negotiated by Kenyan women.

The work My Mother’s Mother is a room installation that fuses women’s voices from both German and Kenyan urban spaces, women living in the middle class milieu. The domestic references created with wallpaper, floor laminates, curtains and ceramic cups symbolize both fragility and strength. Ceramic cups are found in both public and private spaces and have a tendency to represent femininity in an aesthetic form. The cups are suspended in the room at varying levels. Some are attached to saucers, some are upside down, some cups looking like they are sliding off of their respective saucers, some saucers and cups are miss-matched pairs. The walls have three wallpaper styles, one typical of a German grandmother’s taste, the other of the mother’s taste and lastly the daughter’s taste, or the wall paper she found when she moved in. A curtain is in place in one of the three doorways. The aesthetics of the curtain is a typical style of what has become popular with the middle and upper class milieu of Kenya. The floor is layered with a mix of three laminate wooden colours that create an unbalanced floor. The room has several spotlights creating shadows of the cups and saucers along the walls and floor of the room.

This work includes voices from both German and Kenyan middle class women, specifically women who associate with or are part of the traditional heterosexual family ideology, wife, husband, with one or more children. My interest is in the roles women ascribe to, how they define themselves and how this connects to the German and Kenyan history.

Historically East and West Germany created a clear division for women in the development of their self-identification. In the former East however women were still required to take an active role in the work force and as a result their self-identity formed quite differently from their former West German counterparts. In the former West Germany the propaganda of Kinder, Küche & Kirche1 reinforced the old ideology for women belonging in the kitchen with the main task of being a ‘good’ wife and mother, placing ones own needs last, something many of us see in our mothers of this time. These differences still resonates with many in society today and the topic of women’s rights and equality is still at battle with the woman’s domestic role in the contemporary German system.

These stories are universal. Where has the development of feminism left its contemporary European woman who chooses to live within the normative family structure? The matriarchal structures of African women in it’s coded context shouldn’t be ignored simply because we don’t have a compass to engage it. How does the past shape our future choices? Can we ignore the voices of our mother’s mothers? Should we? How do we decide what to hold onto?

Germany and Kenya is not so far apart in the role of women and their aspirations or their future aspirations. The ceramic cups in the room carry voices of women’s thoughts, others hold the texts of the literature and connections I made during my research and interviews, what your grandmother told your mother and what was passed onto you. They represent the hand me downs of tradition, the heirloom, the signifiers of major life events of domesticating oneself, building a home, creating a family, choosing to build a lifestyle.

Kenya’s colonial history shares a similarity with Germany’s 1930’s Bride School programs; during the missionary invasion with the development of schools; there was an agenda to educate potential wives for African men who were trained on entering civil service. These lessons were called Miss-hood lessons; with a subtheme, Baby, Bath and Broom . Only in the late 1950’s did schools appear for women beyond educating women on their role as a ‘good wife’, one wonders how much the current gender politics in Kenya is influenced by old Victorian gender ideals. Support systems for children in Kenya’s traditional past was community based, all adults around a child are responsible for this child’s wellbeing. 

However in the urban settings of our contemporary times more and more Kenyan middle class families are structuring themselves in alignment with Western ideology of the nucleus family. It is unsure what shape the future adaptations these Western ways of being will take. In general you will find that in the middle class milieu, even though Kenyan women are satisfied with allowing men to cater for their financial needs, the idea of keeping some money aside for a rainy day is very much a trend mothers pass onto their daughters. Women are taught to never fully rely on a man. Kenyan women also face the universal social pressures of creating a ‘happy’ home. We all have aspirations for a better life that goes beyond the basics of food, shelter, income and love. Often the idea of what this life should consist of is influenced by the consumer market, is governed by our educational and work.

1 Or the 3 Ks, is a German slogan translated as “children, kitchen, church”. At the present time it has a derogative connotation describing an antiquated female role model. The phrase is vaguely equivalent to the English Barefoot and pregnant.

2 The Reich Bride Schools were institutions established in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. They were created to train young women to be "perfect Nazi brides” taught in Nazi ideology and educated in housekeeping skills.

3 In 1927, the Director of Education described as the three Bs, representing ‘baby, bath and broom’ to substitute for the Three Rs –writing, reading and arithmetic – that were deemed crucial skills for boys (Trignor,1976:206).