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An Interview with Tanzanian Artist Valerie Asiimwe Amani
Exploring the Intersection of Body, Language, and Mythology
Feature 14 Apr 2024
To Dismantle a House. South London Gallery with With Roberts Institute of Art. Valerie Asiimwe Amani_Photo credit © Anne Tetzlaff_DSC2807

Introducing Valerie Asiimwe Amani, a Tanzanian artist and writer whose creative exploration spans various physical and embodied mediums. Through her practice, she interrogates how body erotics, language, and the mythical are used to situate (or isolate) the self within the community. Here, we chatted with the artist, who was the recent honoree of the Foundwork Artist Prize, to get to know her better.

Valerie Asiimwe Amani – Memory Portal, 2021

Your work explored themes of body erotics, language, and mythology. How do these elements intersect in your artistic exploration, and what draws you to them?

When I first began making art, I used my own body and instinctively I began thinking about my body politically, as a black woman. More so after reading and reflecting on Audre Lorde’s writing on how the erotic and feminine are a source of power, especially when our bodies have been (and in some cases are still being) used as sites of oppression. I also was interested in different ways of breaking away from traumatic narratives and so I started looking at African mythology and folklore because imagination has the power to generate a future and to generate more ways of seeing ourselves separate from what the world has told us we must be. Growing up in different African countries, I also appreciated the synergy between language, music, poetry, and oral histories. I am drawn to the way creativity is reflected in culture through language and the stories that a place holds.

Valerie Asiimwe Amani – Miracle Of The Night, 2024

Could you share some insights into your creative process and how you approach incorporating diverse mediums into your work?

My process varies depending on the work I’m creating. Most of the work I make starts with a text—either through the input of reading, a conversation, a diary entry, or a poem I have written. The process after that is a mixture of intuition and patience in terms of trying to figure out what the work wants to be. I spend a lot of time thinking about the work before I make it; at times it can be very visual—I can see a clear image of what it looks like. Other times, the ideas can feel too expansive to be an object or singular work and they often become a textile series or a performance. And within the performance, I may have considered installation and sound elements. So those aspects of the performance can live outside of it as different pieces. Otherwise,  with my collage pieces, I tend to go back onto my computer and play around with compositions digitally and enjoy how the work changes from digital to physical. I just trust that the art chooses the medium and not the other way around.

Power Hungry Installation View. A Spirit Inside VAA install2 Credit Deniz Guzel

Collaboration and community seem to be integral to your practice, as evidenced by your participation in group exhibitions and performances. How do you see your work contributing to conversations within the art world and society at large?

Well, I actually was having a conversation with a friend and collaborator, Rehema Chachage, we were talking about how collectives could be the future of art. Coming from a place where the art industry is very small, when I started making art I didn’t have access to a lot of equipment and resources, but I was fortunate to be part of an art community that was open to collaborate and make work together. Thinking about resources and how inaccessible the art world can be, I think collaboration is a great way for a group of people to help each other grow. I think we have romanticized the idea of the “superstar artist” looking at the art world through a capitalist lens, but community is integral for people coming from similar backgrounds to mine. My whole MFA was crowdfunded through my community. I wouldn’t have had the growth in my career if it was not for collaboration. Collaboration creates a culture of responsibility towards one another, it also hopefully reminds us that kindness should be an integral part of society. Art is an expensive career path to even contemplate, and I think collaboration is a great way to circumvent a lot of the financial challenges while creating a sincere network of people you can grow with. 

Valerie Asiimwe Amani – Installation view ‘Mkutano __ A Place for  Us’ – Modern Art Oxford ‘Boundary Encounters’ Exhibition. Photograph by Ben Westoby

As a Tanzanian artist based in the UK, how does your cultural background inform your artistic expression? Do you find yourself navigating between different cultural contexts in your work?

I think a lot of people of colour and people from different cultural backgrounds have to navigate the differences, but I don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. Besides navigating feelings of belonging, I think it has made me aware of the nuances of place and contributed to my art practice. I have become more appreciative of certain things from home and it has also given me the chance to challenge my perspective of the Western world, and in many ways free me from having to assimilate. The work I make is still very much rooted in Swahili and Southern African culture; however, I have realized it also holds space for global cultures and experiences and the best part is finding similarities in unexpected places. Living here has also given me a richer sense of identity as a result of having to navigate being a foreigner, while also opening me up to a new community of artists of colour, such as Diasporas Now—a performance platform for artists of colour based in the UK.

Valerie Asiimwe Amani – Performance Bahari Chumvi ICA London

Winning the Foundwork Artist Prize must be a significant milestone in your career. How do you envision utilizing the grant and studio visits to further your artistic endeavors?

It definitely is a milestone and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be recognised on an international platform that hosts so many incredible artists’ practices. I feel like I am still very much at the beginning of my career, I don’t have representation, and it has been important for me to learn more about all aspects of this industry to better my practice and be clear on my goals. Speaking with people who’ve been in the art industry for a long time and have the expertise the judges do was a great way to gauge how my practice translates. The questions that I’ve received in the studio visits so far have been really generative for me to think, moving forward, about my practice. It is also a great way to build my professional network. I will make sure to stay in touch with them and it’s great because these are people that I would have never had access to if it wasn’t for the Artist Prize.

All images courtesy of the artist.

You can find out more about Valerie Asiimwe Amani via her website here: www.valerieamani.com and follow her Instagram for regular updates: @ardonaxela

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