Michael Musyoka: Desexualising Sexy Saints

Source: One Off Gallery. Michael Musyoka - One Off Contemporary Art Gallery (oneoffafrica.com). Accessed: 25/08/21

Michael Musyoka is a Kenyan artist who has held exhibitions in prominent contemporary galleries such as the Circle Gallery in Nairobi. He’s also notable for founding the Brush-Tu Artist’s Collective, a contemporary art group that has been incredibly influential not just in Kenya but in East Africa as a whole. I’ll be examining his 2020 exhibition Time and Other Constructs II. 

Looking through this series, it’s incredibly diverse in terms of composition. You have figures kneeling, frolicking throughout the canvas en masse, facing the viewer, and sometimes facing away. The constant is the genderless quality of these figures. They are featureless, in bloated amorphous bodies that seem to float across the canvas. 

In a vast array of featureless figures, I’m interested in Time Servant V 2020. The subservient posture, the slightly bowed head, and of course, the arrows. Arrows as a visual motif are particularly significant in Christian art history. Coupled with the stillness of the figure as he accepts his pain with grace is reminiscent of historic depictions of Christian martyr St. Sebastian. 

Michael Musyoka - Time Servant V, 2020

St. Sebastian was popularised throughout the Italian Renaissance and well into the Victorian era and was famously tied to a post by Roman Soldiers and shot full of arrows. The dichotomy surrounding St. Sebastian mainly lies in the fact that in an era where sexual liberation hadn’t even been coined yet, he was inspirational to many queer artists and writers and was widely upheld as a secularised gay icon—specifically by famously queer and persecuted writer, Oscar Wilde. 

Depictions of the Saint changed from a middle-aged dead guy to a hot twenty-something dead guy. As we move into the 14th and 15th centuries he starts looking younger and younger and wearing less and less clothes. The idea that a man could act as the object of desire disrupted commonly held ideas on sexuality and viewership.1 The fact that he was “penetrated” in a sense by the arrows, also invited questions surrounding masculinity as a concept, and what was understood as immovable and unchanging, suddenly became permeable and malleable and…fuckable I guess?

Reactions to these paintings were so extreme that in Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Fra Bartolommeo published in 1550, it was recorded that friars of the church, “through the confessional, men and woman who had sinned at the sight of it, on account of the charm and melting beauty of the lifelike reality imparted to it”.2 Basically, people were so turned on by depictions of St. Sebastian that it caused a sex riot (I’m barely exaggerating, there wasn’t much going on back then). 

Maracaibo Venezuela san Sebastian

Though St. Sebastian was based on Greek ideas on what constituted the perfect male body (young, white and muscular), he has continued to inspire contemporary artists to this day, and Sebastian is still seen as a figure who encourages questions surrounding repression, sexuality, and gender fluidity. 

When viewing Musyoka’s kneeling figures, the overt sexuality in previous depictions of Sebastian aren’t as apparent, but I would argue that the submissive pose, and genderless features are a natural continuation of Sebastian’s overt, androgynous, sexually charged imaging. Breaking down views on viewership, on who gets to sexualise whom, are put to the side in Time and Other Constructs II. In my interpretation, these works investigate sexuality as more emotionally charged rather than sex centric.

Alongside the individual figures  are tender scenes of community and nurturing in adversity, and the blossoming flowers are contrasted with the brutality of the arrows in Punitive Measures III . This series pushes viewers to question the “other constructs” in a way that addresses the influence that European ideals and the Catholic Church have on Africa, while proposing a gentler and more accepting community that is all our own. 

Michael Musyoka - One Off Contemporary Art Gallery
Footnotes
  1. Flora Doble, “Saint Sebastian as a Gay Icon | Art UK,” artuk.org, January 20, 2020, https://artuk.org/discover/stories/saint-sebastian-as-a-gay-icon.
  2. Richard A. Kaye, “‘Determined Raptures’: St. Sebastian and the Victorian Discourse of Decadence,” Victorian Literature and Culture 27, no. 1 (1999): 269–303, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25058450.