Apiyo Amolo | Arte Laguna Prize

Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo: the daily revolution of a kind warrior

From Kenya to the Swiss Parliament, by way of Venice and Arte Laguna Prize: she has the world in her eyes, Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo, inspiring woman, role model for female empowerment, artist, activist for human and minority rights. Or rather, FemARTivist – feminist artist activist – as she prefers to call herself. A mass of curly hair, an elegant bearing, a desire to reach out to the people, to talk, to converse. If she had to recount her life, Apiyo could not leave out the series of painful events that marked her, yet fortifying her character. Her childhood on the shores of Lake Victoria in the same village where Barack Obama’s father came from, the abuse she suffered in a complex country, her new life in Switzerland, a divorce, the struggle to remain in her adopted country, then her participation in the Arte Laguna Prize and the turning point. Now Apiyo boasts a seat in the Swiss parliament, although she is more likely to be found among the people defending the battles for which she has been fighting for years or in the corridors of the United Nations, with which she works as an expert.

It is, however, in Venice that we meet her on March 11th 2023, at the opening ceremony of the finalists’ exhibition of Arte Laguna Prize, established contemporary art prize with an international scope. Today she is called upon to present the event; nine years ago, she was among the exhibiting artists. She walks around, radiant and majestic, in a red velvet dress sewn by herself, on which she has applied many porcelain masks purchased the day she arrived in Venice, a tribute to the city of Carnival that changed her life. And to the audience who stops her for a few photos and to congratulate her, Apiyo does not hesitate to mention how, after all, it all started right there, under the vaults of the Arsenale.

In fact, it was the year 2014 when an unknown Kenyan-born artist, impressed the jury of the video and performance section with a short video entitled Not Swiss Made (2012). The video is inspired by her personal story, by that moment of limbo she went through after her divorce. At that very time, Apiyo became aware of the risk of losing her Swiss citizenship, being deprived of a regular residence permit and thus becoming a sans-papiers. Underlying the work there are the contradictions experienced by those who carry two cultures in their baggage. More specifically, the paradox experienced by the artist, caught between a husband who started to consider her “too Swiss” and a country for which she was not Swiss enough, even though practising traditional yodelling was one of her passions. The short film Not Swiss Made swept the waters of the lagoon, winning first prize in its category, and the artist’s tears as she took the stage to receive her award will remain in the annals of the exhibition. After her success in Venice, Apiyo returned to Zurich, where she was summoned by a political party intrigued to view her work and hear its motivation. «At the time, I didn’t know it was the largest left-wing party in Switzerland» she confesses. Then came the proposal, simple and direct – «Do you want to become a politician?» – and, at first, the refusal: «I am an artist, I just made this video and won an award at Arte Laguna; I don’t know anything about politics». Apiyo doesn’t realise it yet but with that video that speaks to the people and defends minority rights, she has taken more political sides than she could ever imagine. Therefore she began her tour through the 26 cantons of Switzerland, showing her work, seeking confrontation with people around the issues she highlighted. Shortly afterwards, she was included in the lists for the federal elections, being elected as a member of the Swiss parliament.

In pursuing her political and social mission, Apiyo is clear: «Rather than emphasizing differences, I prefer to highlight contact points». This is the goal driving her campaigns. In order to knock down the wall of racism, in her adopted Switzerland she goes on to describe the similarities of yodeling with the songs practised by some African tribes, especially in the rainforest area. In Venice, on the other hand, she points out the similarities between African and Italian cultures, both of which are based on the importance of the family and also share a typical dish: polenta and ugali, a white maize recipe typical of Kenya.

Nowadays Apiyo keeps on making art – until mid-June, one of her video installations is on public view at Zurich City Hall – because for her, this is the most effective means of talking about politics. «It is easier for people to understand important issues this way; thanks to art they don’t feel attacked». Through art, Apiyo pursues numerous initiatives aimed at breaking down racial and gender stereotypes, but also at promoting environmental sustainability. An example of this is AgroCity, a project that aims to create a city in Tanzania for the emancipation and education of women and children, those who «in every sphere of life pay twice as much as men». In a geographical and cultural context in which women and children are constantly threatened – just think of the risks associated with giving birth in precarious sanitary conditions or the kilometres to be travelled to fetch drinking water – Apiyo’s project aims to create a safe environment in which plant cultivation, respect for animals and other practical-manual skills can also be taught. «These women will become teachers, entrepreneurs… By making them independent, we can also reduce migration to Europe» she continues, pointing out that by developing adequate living conditions, «it is possible to live a peaceful life in Africa as well».

Among her many activities, Apiyo is now also president of the Swiss Diversity Award, a Swiss association for the promotion of diversity and inclusion, which promotes the idea that «anyone can contribute to the realisation of great visions». In short, she just can’t stop, Apiyo – a fighter with a gentle manner; day after day, with small gestures and her testimony, she brings about a real revolution. Convinced that «only an inclusive society is a free society», with her example she daily celebrates diversity and reminds us how even a black woman can yodel while wearing a dirndl.