Osborne Macharia, who is born and bred in Nairobi, is a source of envy. Not just because the Kenyan photographer has just exhibited his show, Black To The Future, in Dubai. Not just because he’s still in bed in Vancouver – where he’s visiting family – when we chat on Skype.
Not even just because Macharia is one of the multi-disciplinary artists who will appear at Khuli Chana’s inuagural One Source Live mini fest in Johannesburg next weekend. What’s most envious about Macharia – to me, at least – is that I didn’t come up with (and keep for myself) a little-known alias of his: artbishop.
He laughs raucously when I bring this up. The self-taught photographer tells me: “it’s not that art is like a religion. When I was younger, guys used to diss me and say I was being like an archbishop or a provost in charge so I coined it and made it artbishop – which makes sense to me.”
Having already spoken about the art genre – which sits comfortably at the colourful intersection of nostalgia and the future – he is often placed under at places like Design Indaba in Cape Town, Macharia is no stranger to Mzansi. He tells me he is looking forward to his appearance at One Source Live on March 24.
“Me and Kevo Abbra, my set designer, stylist and a key component of the stuff I do, will be doing three installations of our work,” he says. “It’s more than image display. We’re trying to get guys into the world of what we do visually. It will be a mixture of image, emotion, a bit of interaction and just to give guys a three-dimensional view of our work.”
You might have seen Macharia’s work in striking images such as the Color Cafe, or through his many collaborations with alternative musician Blinky Bill – or you might have seen his beautiful portrayals of geriatrics in series such as Remember the Rude Boy or what has been termed The League of Extravagant Grannies.
The elderly as a focal point is a theme in Macharia’s work. He tells me: “I love putting the elders in places you wouldn’t normally expect to see them. There’s also this sense of innocence they bring. They give me these expressions I did not expect. For them, it’s innocent, it’s something they’ve never done before.
“Most of them feel like they’re getting a second chance in life. Most of the guys we work with are from the slums and the ghetto, and when you place them in these other worlds you’ve created, they automatically switch and get into character.
“Once they see the photos, they feel like they’ve been given a chance to be who they never thought they would be. That makes us know we’re doing something meaningful to them. Working with them is entertaining and frustrating, but interesting at the end of the day.”
What people don’t often see is the story behind the gogos with flowing white weaves in regal African print dresses or dapperly dressed with cigar in hand, or a small plane in the background. For instance, Blinky Bill’s Atie video is a stylised art film of elderly women but the backstory is that they are former female genital mutilation (FGM) surgeons who seek to change the future of women.
“The project is called Magadi – a place in Kenya that is a dried-up salt lake,” Macharia explains. “The video was called Atie – a song by Blinky. At some point, people will come across the FGM backstory on their own and I’m not really trying to force it. When it comes to my work, the initial thing I want people to feel is that the work is captivating or entertaining.”
He achieves this through the Remember the Rude Boy series. In the photos, gorgeous old men are dressed colourfully but impeccably and pose inside a square. Around them, a different black-and- white world of existence carries on moving while they are still, immortalised.
This is significant because the series features individuals who were all friends of a very loved, deceased man.
“When Kevo’s dad passed on, he told me he wanted to do a project that would be in memory of his dad,” says Macharia. “The Remember the Rude Boy idea came to mind. We did the first one and we liked it.
“When we were in Ghana shooting another project, I saw this background that we loved and thought we could do phase two. When we came back, we said, ideally, we want to shoot phase three somewhere in Joburg. We’ll link the three and say it was a tribute to his dad by men throughout Africa, using East, West and South Africa. The logistics are crazy but we hope it works out.”
We hope so too.