Photographer and Afrofuturist artist Osborne Macharia comes up with his best ideas while flying. He credits frequent long-haul aeroplane trips, a staple of his work as a commercial photographer, for allowing him the headspace to daydream. He sees this as the genesis of his fantastical work in fiction, his new commitment to creating universes. Perhaps the 600 miles-per-hour calm of a commercial flight reflects the nature of Osborne’s work, which is light and playful whilst also being action-filled and high-octane. He’s as much a fan of Mad Max as he is peace and quiet. From Black Panther to Kenyan Grannies, Osborne and his team approach everything with energy and imagination. Here, Osborne talks about fictional photography and the importance of fantasy in defining Kenya’s future.
Could you define ‘Afrofuturism’ for us?
I give it my own definition, which is: an artistic repurposing of the post-colonial African narrative by integrating historical elements, present realities, and future aspirations of people of color, through narrative fantasy and fiction, to reimagine a new Africa.
How important are fiction and fantasy in retelling the past, and imagining the future?
I think fiction and fantasy give you that freedom to imagine a world of possibilities. There are no boundaries. I started as a professional photographer, where everything is scripted according to a brief. This other kind of work gives you complete freedom to create exactly what you want to create. Something that’s entertaining and fun. That’s the reason why I started playing with fiction. And it just came through experimentation. My team and I just thought, “Why don’t we give it a shot?” Little did we know that this would come to define our work.
You talk fun. With that in mind, we should mention the League of Extravagant Grannies project.
That was one of our initial projects. One of the images we had to capture for a different professional brief was at an airport in Somalia. As we were waiting for that golden hour, we saw this plane swooping down, and we imagined these elegant, classy old women walking out of these shiny planes. We sat down and came up with a narrative which became the League of Extravagant Grannies. The day we launched was International Women’s Day, and it became one of the trending topics on twitter! And for us that really solidified what we’d been trying to experiment with, and we wanted to explore it further.
And it all came out of pure chance and play and experimentation?
Absolutely. Just by being curious and experimenting, we found a whole movement that has defined our work.
Alongside the freedom to play, does a lot of research go into the work?
We really don’t get deep into the nitty gritty in terms of research. If you went through the educational system in Kenya, these histories are what you had to learn. So our work is based on things we learnt in school and trying to just play around with it, take cultural elements that are there right now and see how we can fuse history and present to imagine how the future will look. It’s always a balance between the three. History is involved. Present culture is involved. And the future is what we create.
Do you create different universes from our own?
That hit us a few months ago, towards the end of last year, when we sat down and looked at the body of work we had created. We realized that we had been creating our own universe, and fitting our characters into it. We don’t know how this world will look eventually. We’re going with the flow and exploring.
Do your characters all come together in one universe, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
To some extent I think they do, and this comes across in exhibitions. Recently in Nairobi we were celebrating seven years of Afrofuturism at the Alliance Francaise. We had seven pieces of work and you could tell that they interrelated, correlated, within themselves.
Speaking of the MCU, what was it like working on Black Panther?
The beauty was it was an open brief. We could create whatever we wanted as long as it touched on Black Panther. We were 5 artists commissioned globally, and everybody else was dealing with the character of Black Panther himself. We decided to take a different turn and speak about the people who relate with him. That’s how we came up with this story about his closest advisers and and the stories around that. The guys at Marvel loved it so much that they put it in the biggest cinema in London during the opening! That was a win for us.
Who influences you, and what experiences have shaped your work, helped you to tell your stories?
I love post-apocalyptic movies. I’m a die-hard fan of Mad Max. But the other point is that I love my quiet times. I’m generally a quiet person, and in those moments I tend to daydream. Especially when I’m flying. I just like having my own space where I can let my mind wander into the unknown. But I think it’s those times that these ideas form.
You’ve been all over Kenya, and all over the world. How do you feel about Kenyan identity within the nation, and on a global platform? What are some of the things you want to celebrate about Kenya?
Definitely our rich culture and heritage, our diversity. We are so diverse, but so alike in a way. This idea crosses the border. It’s not just a Kenyan thing: it’s an African thing. We want to feel like our journey is a continental journey. We’re just telling personal stories that also resonate with people from across the world, especially in the diaspora. It’s a way of showcasing ourselves in an uplifting way that gives you a sense of pride, and then connecting that with home.
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