Jebet Naava is a self-taught artist and graphic designer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She describes herself in an interview with Let’s Be Brief (2018) as “a twenty-something artist and mother who has just started figuring out what’s it’s like and what it means to live” Her mediums span from intimate photography series to GIFs, all of which deal with themes surrounding motherhood, female empowerment and mental health, themes which are particularly notable in her work Queen Mother (2020) and MAMA (2020).
Queen Mother is an interesting piece from the name itself. A queen mother is the dowager queen of a reigning monarch, a term that has been used throughout Britain’s monarchy since at least 1560. In Naava’s piece, The Queen Mother takes a very British idea on hierarchy, monarchy, and bureaucracy as a linear and immovable institution, and expands it to signify strength and freedom in an African context. She has clouds in her eyes and leaves sprouting framing her temples and shoulders—she is suspended in space, directly facing the viewer in a powerful stance. The queen mother is dark skinned, regal, and rules the sky. The cosmos is a running theme throughout Nava’s work, which lends her subject matter a universality, and a vastness that contradicts the limitations that mothers, particularly black mothers experience on Earth.
The idea of motherhood has been through many different iterations, often evolving alongside depictions of Mary, particularly from the sixteenth century up to the modern age. For many sixteenth century theorists, a woman’s role was reproduction. With the rise of Protestant ideologies, there was a movement away from Mary and the idea of consecrated virginity, and one towards a system where women marry and put their husbands and children first. Her role as a mother served the interests of the state, the economic system, and religious rhetoric in all parts of early modern Europe.[mfn]
The good mother was virtuous and dutiful, and to be a good mother was to be a good woman. Refusing motherhood made you an old maid in the best light, but usually you were a witch and burned for it, or a whore (go figure).[mfn] The domestic ideology of sixteenth-century Christianity is intrinsically connected to the political, social, and economic institutions of the modern West, and considering colonisation and the giant that is Western media, that affects us all. With the turn of the century came the departure of men into factories and offices, while the mother became smaller, more restricted, and more isolated—the home became her sole dominion.
Naava constructs a world where motherhood is viewed beyond these traditional limitations. In her piece MAMA (2020) a mother stands in the middle of a dusty country road with a child strapped to her back. Stylised crowns are roughly sketched over their heads as they stare out at the viewer, eyes glowing. The GIF format is well utilised, and they are both surrounded with a halo that pulsates with light, adding a movement and dynamism to the piece that would be impossible through photography alone. Accompanying the piece is a short poem written by Naava herself:
“With a ring of fire,
I will protect you,
I beg you forgive me for my shortcomings..”
The trees and house in the background are blurry and soft, which only emphasises the focus and centrality of the main two figures. The ring of fire she mentions in the poem is reminiscent of the phrase “trial by fire” and has religious allusions to the halo’s that surround depictions of Catholic saints. Motherhood here isn’t soft, or biddable, or in service to an institution or cause, but strong and hard and even a little heart-breaking. As Naava says “I beg you to forgive me for my shortcomings”, there is an implicit understanding that no matter how hard she tries, there will always be a harsher expectation on mothers, a reality that is emphasised by the fact that the mothers in her pieces are always alone.
They’re alone, but not small, not shrunken down or shuffled off to the side. Naava’s mothers take centre stage, they are the subject, they are the protagonists of their own stories.
- Atkinson, Clarissa W. “Theological Motherhood: The Virgin Mother of God.” In <i>The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West</i>, 101-43. ITHACA; LONDON: Cornell University Press, 1991. Accessed August 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctvn1t9zn.8.
- Douglas Davies and Michael Thate, “Religion and the Individual: Belief, Practice, and Identity” (, n.d.), accessed August 25, 2021.