Kenyan animator Ng’endo Mukii brings a global view to her films and her Tufts classes
In two short films by Kenyan animator Ng’endo Mukii, a pair of bright-eyed and eager young people set out on separate yet similarly heartbreaking journeys.
Allured by misleading promises of a better life, the protagonist of Far from Home leaves her family in Kenya for a life as a domestic worker in the Middle East, an abusive situation from which she must escape.
Meanwhile, the hero of Kitwana’s Journey, after getting lost in the streets of Nairobi, is ensnared by the nightmarish realities of forced labor, sexual molestation, drug abuse, and homelessness from which he must find his own way out.
For Kitwana’s story, Mukii guides her audience through each difficult scene with a voiceover narration told in the gentle language and intonations of a children’s bedtime tale. Both films are awash in vibrant animation that moves to the relaxed rhythms of their soundtracks. Through such narrative and visual approaches, Mukii draws her viewers deeply into the human experiences of the real people her animated characters depict.
“I feel that animation frees the artist to express themselves on a more emotional and intuitive way than anthropological documentary filmmaking,” says Mukii, who made both short films for the nongovernmental organization Awareness Against Human Trafficking, which combats the problem in Eastern Africa.
“In anthropological and documentary live-action films, we have a history that presents a Western perspective as the only thing that is true. It’s set up to say, ‘This is the way Africans live,’ and people accept it.”
More than a year ago, Mukii became a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, where she teaches students the art and techniques of character animation, including digital and film practices. But teaching at Tufts hasn’t slowed her work creating films that make a difference.
“What I really love is the interaction between teaching and directing," she says. "I feel a lot of overlap in terms of how I communicate with the students or with a film crew, how I create environments where everyone can flourish. Each time I do either, I become better at the other.”
Currently, she’s creating a 10-minute film called Enkai for the upcoming Disney anthology Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire. Due to be released later this year, the 10-part anthology draws from Africa’s diverse histories and cultures to deliver sci-fi and fantasy stories from uniquely African perspectives.
As an artist, Mukii considers herself primarily an animation director, though she also works in other media, blending photography, live action, and the poetry of spoken word into her films. “As I interact with the themes that I want to explore, I try to figure out which medium is best to use,” she says. “Within my animation, you’ll see a lot of mixed media. My art is based on this interaction, this exploration, as I delve into my themes.
Her award-winning film Yellow Fever explores how Western influences of beauty impact the self-image of African women and how they are compelled to alter their appearances to conform to such ideals. It opens with an animated scene that shows Mukii and her sister in a beauty salon having their hair braided with extensions by a beautician who has bleached portions of her body. (This woman could only “afford enough beauty cream to bleach her hands and face,” Mukii points out in the film’s narration.)
Blended into the animated scenes are live-action images of a pair of dancers, their glowing skin superimposed with images of African landscapes and colonial illustrations depicting indigenous peoples. The natural beauty of the dancers belies the artificial ideals presented in the animated scenes, even as the dancers themselves physically portray the film’s central psychological struggle through choreography.
In her work, Mukii aims to create a narrative of Africa outside of the Western gaze.
“In anthropological and documentary live-action films, we have a history that presents a Western perspective as the only thing that is true. It’s set up to say, ‘This is the way Africans live,’ and people accept it,” she says. “If a Western director comes to Kenya, for example, to make a film, it can be a very top-down interaction with people who may be struggling or marginalized. When you have people from within the community making the films, your interaction with their stories is immediately different.
“My art is a reflection of who I am,” she says. “I feel that in all the work I do, I’m trying to understand my position in the world as a Black, African, indigenous, queer woman. Who am I within this world? Who does this world say I am? Who do I see myself as? And then, who can I be?”
Mukii’s father supported her artistic pursuits from the start. “He was an artist himself but being a young man in Kenya in the early ’60s, he was directed to more stable work. He became a lawyer,” she recalls. “But he tested each of his children to see if we ‘inherited’ his artistic genes, and I was the one who responded.”
From a young age, Mukii was obsessed with drawing. “I had a photoreal approach to illustration, which led to an investigation with different mediums.” After high school, she left Kenya to earn an undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she moved into film animation and video. Back in Nairobi, she worked for a children’s TV show before moving on to earn a master of arts in animation from the Royal College of Art in London.
At a conference in Edinburgh, she began to ask how documentary animation could be used around real-life topics. This question led to a successful and prolific career doing just that, all the while exploring it more deeply through workshops, prestigious residencies, film festivals, conferences, and instruction.
“I really enjoy working with the students at Tufts,” she says. “I told my class when we had our last get together that every professor is here to receive energy from them. No one is telling them this, but we really need to be around the students. I told them, ‘I need to be around you to see the world from a different perspective.’”