Meeting the self-taught Photographer and Visual Artist Osborne Macharia, who has been raising the artistic benchmark not only in his hometown Nairobi.
Last month I visited an exhibition at Alliance Française, Nairobi showcasing one of the leading artists in Afrofuturism: Kenyan photographer and visual artist Osborne Macharia, born and raised in Nairobi. Together with his long-time stylist Kevin Abraham (aka Kevo Abbra), Macharia creates a unique cosmology putting African identity on display. Fictionalized personas, a mixture of mythologies and urban street style, showing the power and beauty of the people of this continent. Macharia’s break through was around fictionalized portraits of unsung heroes, sidelined by the society, or in Kenya’s history. His work has been awarded and travelled all over the world from the USA, Brasil, South Africa, to Germany, the Netherlands, and even in Switzerland, where his work got exhibited last year and shortlisted in Basel. He’s worked for massive global brands such as Coca-Cola, Forbes, Mercedes-Benz, was assigned by Oprah Winfrey or Marvel Studio. His style of photography fall within the genre of Afrofuturism, which he describes as: “An artistic repurpose of the post-colonial African narrative through integrating historical elements, present culture and future aspirations of people of colour by using Narrative, Fantasy and Fiction to re-imagine a new Africa”. I met Osborne Macharia to discuss the power of Afrofuturism, the negligence of his hometown and the passion for branding.
Osborne, when I saw your portrait series at Alliance Française about the guerilla freedom fighter opticians, to pick only one of the exposed bodies of work. The myth you created around those personas is actually fairly credible. I went “Is this for real?”
Osborne (laughs): Yeah everybody has the same reaction! This body of work about the Mau Mau freedom fighters was actually the first series we worked with fiction. (we is always referring to His stylist and partner in crime Kevin Abraham)
In Europe, but also here I have come to understand, we know actually very little about Kenyan history and the struggle for independence.
Yes, and whatever we got of information about the freedom fighters comes from the British side and all. And the Kenyan freedom fighters are mostly represented as trouble making savages. You never get the good stories, about the heroes, what they did, the individuals. That was one of the reasons, why I created that project.
“The story revolves around the Mau Mau (Guerrilla Fighters during Kenya’s Independence War). Rumour has it that within the Mau Mau was a special unit of five opticians who hand crafted their own special spectacles that they used to spot the enemy at night. Little is known about them till now …” — O. M.
The way you play with facts and phantasy works very well, as there is such a huge knowledge gap to be filled I assume.
Yes, and it opened the whole door to Afrofuturism. I actually I did not even know what Afrofuturism was.
You were not referring to that movement and its Afro-American roots?
We had no clue. Until one fine day, when a journalist from an International Broadcast station approached us that she saw our work and would like to talk about Afrofuturism. Me and Kevo were like: Is this insulting us? Does she know that I am a photographer and you are a stylist? We felt offended, as we thought we are supposed to talk about politics. We ignored the email, and later on when I did my research, I learned that there is that term Afrofuturism and that it’s a whole genre behind it that our work stands for. And somewhere in between this whole undiscovered world falls our work. We decided this is what it’s going to describe our work: Afrofuturism. And later I defined what Afrofuturism means to me.
Where I grew up, it’s mostly the other way around. Upcoming artists get influenced by established artists and existing movements, styles, and while being in art school they decide to go in a certain direction they already know the “brand”. You have never gone to photography or art school and maybe working in this artistic isolation has also its advantages?
Yes. Probably because I was self-taught, I decided to explore things on my own. When I started out I did a lot of research and invested in online tutorials, about commercial photography mainly. We did it on our own with a lot of sacrifice and dedication, and this isolation has been beneficial to me. I never struggled shooting inside Africa, in the States, such as Detroit, or Canada, wherever. The first time when I actually shot in the US, for Oprah Winfrey Network, I was so scared when I got on set. But I remember sitting down and meeting my assistants, the lighting crew. The way I was talked to, made me feel so confident. Every process that I had tried to develop here at home, made sense over there. It was not that shaking moment of “I don’t know what you guys are talking about!” that I was so afraid of.
You did the artwork of Ava DuVarney’s (director of Netflix Central Park 5 Drama “When They See Us”) TV-show Queen Sugar is apparently a fan of you.
Ava started to follow me on Instagram when that trailer campaign for Absolute came out. When I asked the marketing responsible from Oprah Winfrey Network how they found me, they said it was Ava DuVarney telling them to look out for this guy.
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You mentioned Detroit, where you were invited by the University of Michigan to have a speech together with your stylist Kevin Abraham (aka Kevo or Abbra) and the Kenyan musician Blinky Bill, during that trip you also worked on you’re the “Remember the Rude Boy” Series. What is the underlying theme of that body of work?
It’s about celebrating men who have not been recognized in society, especially black fatherhood. That was the underlined theme.
The 1st part of the trilogy is a tribute to Abbra’s (Kevin Abraham) father who used to be in the batik fabrication business. The accompanying story tells how he and his colleagues in the tailoring industry in the ghetto began fusing their own design with the readily available thrift-store collectables, to set up tribute shows in different hoods in Nairobi.
Another body work features Afro-American War Veterans in Detroit. Those portraits are supposed to be the true story about a group of four resilient African-American War Veterans from the State of Michigan who despite all odds have a reason to keep their dapper swag alive.
How did you find the Detroit War Veterans?
The lady who organized the event linked me up with the Veterans. We did the shooting at Dabls Bead Museum in Detroit. And there was a section of glass texture where we decided to shoot.
How was the reaction of the veterans?
Amazing. They really loved the outfits, after the shooting we left them as a present and I could see their excitement.
Your style has brought you international recognition from leading brands and the movie industry. What is specific about your style?
Our style speaks to this generation of young Africans, people who really trying to connect with identity and seeing themselves portrayed in such a cool and fancy way. For instance, one of the biggest project we have done so far was for the South African Vodacom Durban July’s (an annual horse raise) campaign themed “Afrofuturism”. This one and another project for Absolute are not only the biggest, but also amongst my favorites.
It seems that South Africa is tempting to that side of embracing an African heritage and African identity in their advertising work. I’ll do that any day, where brands have the visibility, the budgets and sort of creative freedom. And this is what I enjoy.
You have experienced a creative freedom from South African clients or International brands. Let’s talk about Nairobi, where you have apparently been hiding away, the East African economic hub, Eldorado of big international investment groups, NGOs, as well as the African UN head quartier. There is plenty of creative talent around, but not much of an arts and creative industry. Why is that?
I don’t really know. I have never bothered much about the Nairobi art scene. My passion is working with brands, that is what I am really passionate about. And whenever brands are able to execute projects that fit into our style, I’ll get excited. When you grow up and you want to be creative, you were told you need to be in a professional course. And the only course available was architecture. So, I got into it, but once it got less artsy and more engineering I started to realize this was not for me. I blocked off architecture when I was in my 3rd year in 2009, kind of a disillusioned by the profession. I’m actually happy I followed this other path of photography.
Was this an easy decision to take?
No. When I decided to do photography, people around me actually thought that I had gone crazy as they wouldn’t consider it as a proper profession. A photographer was the guy in Uhuru Park taking pictures of tourists. That was in 2009, but until today people never consider photography as something serious. I am happy that I am one of the people here who broke that ceiling.
I have also been wondering, why International Organizations send their Western photographers to Kenya for executing a job, instead of hiring local photographers.
When I started to shoot for agencies here, there was no black person shooting, only white people. Always. Even the person who mentors me, he is Australian. When he came here to Kenya look for photographers, he was asking, where has this guy been all these years? I think it’s a notion here that black people, Kenyans can’t be photographers.
You’ve come a long way and nowadays you are an idol for young upcoming photographers here in Nairobi.
I never imagined to become a reference point. It’s quite cool. We can set the bar higher, and somebody comes to raise it a little bit higher, eventually we will get to a much better place in general. The good thing we Kenyans have a huge diversity in photography: from commercial to documentary, architecture.
Is there hope for more recognition for Kenyan photographers here in Kenya?
There is hope, but the people, the gatekeepers, if I can say so, the agencies, the brands, they’re not doing their job. We as the independent photographers and artists are trying to do what agencies elsewhere have done. Our agencies have not set the standards, which is contrary to every other part of the world. If you go to South Africa, it’s the agencies and brands who are pushing it to the top.
It’s so hard to understand how is it possible to not being interested in pushing the standard of your country and invest in talent.
I don’t know whether it’s greed or the love for money, doing the very little for the big man. I was not recognized by agencies here until I landed the big jobs out of the country.
I am reluctant to accept that Kenya is not investing in its talents. But I have always wondered, why is it that the movie industry in Western Africa is big and celebrated. One of the poorest countries on the continent, Burkina Faso, is hosting the Fespaco, the most important and biggest filmfestival for African Cinema.
We have tried so many times to set up some art event, like the one you attended at Alliance Française. But it is so sad, that we only get support from foreign bodies, and as they do so, they even tell me: We know that your Government or Private Bodies in Kenya won’t sponsor you, they don’t appreciate the arts, that’s why we come in. The current Director of the Alliance Française in Nairobi was posted in Senegal before and he told me, how he used to see how the Government and the private sector support the arts in Dakar, which is quite different from here.
Once you mentioned in a speech you held, you would like to expand that limited perception of art as simply being objects hanging on white walls. Is this the common understanding of art in the environment where you grew up with?
Maybe, or it has to be very abstract, not easy accessible, dictated by a few and someone has to validate your work and if you’re not in that circle you feel like no.
In which way?
I’ll give you an example: When we were in Basel last year for the IAF (Festival for contemporary African art). One day we were in a collector’s home with many curators who came to see our work. I remember showing my work to one of the collectors and I remember him saying: Your work looks more like pop art.
He wanted to box you? You felt sort of disqualified from the high art?
I don’t know, but since that moment I always feel that art is supposed to be executed and perceived in a very certain way.
I think I hear you … Curators and collectors can be very essential for kicking off an artist’s career, they are the gatekeepers, who endorse your art or don’t. In Zurich where I am from, there is a huge Art Academy. And it’s even creating a system that does not really like self-taught artists.
Are you serious?
Yes, not so surprising as every industry has its gatekeepers, right?
It feels that way, yeah. There’s this funny thing which I share with my wife. I feel that in the art world, you can get away with a lot, you can take a bad photo, but as long as you can describe it nicely you convince people from your work. But if it comes to the commercial world you are automatically told this is rubbish. There is a filter, a certain standard of professionalism, which I always have wanted to attain. People first see the work and only from there to be able to build up a story behind.
I noticed a fascination for technology in your work. Those characters you chose, sidelined by society empower themselves by appropriating a certain vintage style of technology. Now, sorry to go back to politics. But technology was also what only made colonialization possible, the technological lead.
That is an interesting aspect, as I never saw my work in that way. I love science fiction, I grew up with Mad Max. I want to create an optimistic futuristic world. It’s always funny to see how everyone I talk to understands my work in a different way, which I am okey with, as long as it leaves a positive message with the observer.
You also mention now and then, you’d prefer that your work speaks for itself.
During the same trip to Switzerland, we went to Lausanne for the festival Cinéma D’Afrique and we went to Moutier to somebody’s house. There was a friend from Guinea who would not speak English and us who would not speak French. So, there was a communication barrier. And as the host was running late we had no translator. We started showing our work to each other. And I could feel her excitement about my work. That she would connect, and she kept on talking about it. And that is what it is all about: She, someone who has been outside of Africa for many years, would immediately connect. If that is the effect it has we are on the right path.
How have you experienced South Africa in terms of black empowerment and prevailing structural racism?
I experienced it during the Indaba Design Week. Where we got a standing ovation after our presentation, which was so powerful for Kevin and me. I really felt it. When we left the theatre, I remember people just coming to us, without introducing themselves, who just wanted to say thank you. They told me: You have shown the white people in South Africa that Black People can actually do it, and do it good. I felt it, but at the same time I decided I am not going to focus on this battle. My references are white people and I love what they do, and we have such a deep connection with them, and they are so much pro Osborne, if I can say so. So, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, as long as you respect me, I’ll respect you.
Talking about optimistic narratives about the postcolonial Africa. I have always been exposed to two extreme, stereotypes of Africa: On the one hand the tourism industry displaying the Maasai warrior on their marketing campaigns standing for the whole of Africa. And on the other hand, the NGO world victimizing the people. And there is a huge gap in between which is not represented, and this gap can be filled.
That is exactly what we are trying to fill. When we were in Detroit, doing our speech, a couple that was sitting in the crowd, was moved by our performance. So they came on stage and the girlfriend told us, you know my boyfriend was crying when you guys were talking. I can’t believe you came all the way from Africa to show us a positive view of how we should be. And it was a very spiritual moment, he was teary. That was very moving.