Film Review: ‘Yellow Fever’ by Kenyan Ng’endo Mukii
By: Courtney McLarnon
“The fault lines within, we overwrite with borders. Hierarchies of beauty cut into our skin, never admitting that we are all just a little bit uncomfortable”.
The proudly Kenyan Director/Editor/Animator Ng’endo Mukii addresses narratives of skin tone and perceptions of beauty in her short film ‘Yellow Fever’. The film, originally the artists’ thesis submission in 2012, is a mixed-media animation documentary which uses beautiful hand-drawn animation with spoken word, computer animation, pixilation and stunning live action filming, evoking strong emotions in those who watch. This multi-media approach provides a visceral insight into an expressive and stirring topic — colorism and self-image among African girls and women. For the artist, this mixed approach aimed to present the almost schizophrenic self-visualisation process she (and many others) experienced –and currently experience.
As described on her personal website, Mukii, interested in the concept of skin and race, developed the film because the “skin and the body, are often distorted into a topographical division between reality and illusion.” Focusing on African women’s self-image, through her own memories and interviews with her young niece she speaks to the globalisation of beauty where standardized perceptions of what (in this case, skin) is beautiful. By delving into her personal experiences with race and self-perception, Mukii investigates the impact of Eurocentric beauty ideals, from both mainstream media and advertising on African women.
The film, slightly under seven minutes, begins with the layered and subtle hand-drawn animation of the ‘toffee’ Mukii and her ‘chocolate’ sister getting their hair braided. The hairdresser, she describes as a mkorogo – or someone who has only had enough money to bleach parts of her skin, leaving the rest ‘yellow’. Mukii beautifully narrates; “her true ebony persists on the length of her upper arms, the bow of her stomach, the breadth of her thighs.” Juxtaposed with powerful live-action imagery of dark-skinned women in movement, the message that comes across is one of complete confliction. “Your reflection is almost a monster to you”, Mukii exclaims, illuminating the difficulty of being in what can feel like a perpetual state of an unrecognisable self.
In portraying the dissatisfaction some darker skinned women have with their skin tones, the film tackles the use of (the sometimes harmful) skin-lightening or bleaching creams. In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, skin-lightening products are widely used in attempts to fulfill contrived global beauty ideals, resulting from the affects of media on how women may perceive themselves. These complexion-based self-image issues are no recent phenomenon. As the artist herself proclaims, “the idea of beauty has become globalised, creating homogenous aspirations, and distorting people’s self-image across the planet.” The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that in many parts of Africa, women who are lighter-skinned are considered more beautiful. WHO figures in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women, respectively, are reported to use skin-lightening products regularly. In India, 61% of the dermatological market is favored towards skin bleaching products. These products can be extremely hazardous to health and the environment and have thus been banned in many countries.
The impact of skin-whitening and skin tone idealisation is explained as a fever in the film, one that we “pass onto our children.” A little bit uncomfortable, the artist’s young niece engages in dialogue over her own self-image. Her niece explains, “if I was American, I would be white, white, white, white, white and I love being white.” She continues clarifying, with magic she would change to, “white hair and white skin.” This is perhaps the most powerful and saddening part of the film, not simply because the young niece’s statements are upsetting to hear but because it illustrates how American media is presented to the world. Essentially, Mukii brings into light the effect these beauty ideals have as generations pass.
The forgetfulness of entire societies of organic and local beauty ideals in place of ‘Western’ ones has become a detriment to a strong sense of self, not only for women but also young girls and men. This film reveals another world, an insider’s perspective of a fundamental pressure on people to conform to ideals that are toxic – in this case literally. We, in the global society, need to promote beauty ideals that are diverse and empowering because after all, we are all the most stunning in our natural form.
This beautiful short film has been screened across the world and received praise far and wide, turning Ng’endo Mukii into a renowned and awarded artist. I’m sure I speak for many that I cannot wait for what she presents next.