Arts + Culture
Photo courtesy of Performa and The Nest Collective.

Performa 17: The Nest Collective Explores Afrofuturism, Black Silence & Protest in Film

The Kenyan collective's short film program at Performa 17 is an emphasis on the strength of black presence.

"White people love Afrofuturism," says artist Patricia Kihoro, as she throws extension cords on top of her head in The Nest Collective's new short film, We Need Prayers: This One Went to Market.


In the film, which debuted at Performa 17 in New York this Sunday, Kihoro plays an artist who has resorted to "performing" African-ness in order to sell her work. Her original creative voice is silenced; in its place are the ideals of a capitalist, white supremacist art market, in which Afrofuturism is just one more reductive label used to flatten the complexity of black artists. As Kihoro poses with a telephone receiver across her eyes (to "see into the future"), her photographer protests. But Kihoro snaps back: If this photograph sells for $3,000, do you really care what the work means?

Silence is a powerful theme in The Nest Collective's short-film collection for Performa's AFROGLOSSIA film program. What happens when we black folk lose our voice—or refuse to use it? In This One Went to Market, Kihoro is in on the joke. She sails into art-world success by pandering to white people's clichés about Africa—isolation, conflict, and strife—and lands BuzzFeed worthy headlines like "Meet the African Artist Who Is Re-Examining Afrofuturism." But what has she lost in the process of selling her culture to market?

Photo courtesy of Performa and The Nest Collective.

The film mirrors the scene from Get Out when one of the white bidders tells Daniel Kaluuya's Chris, "Black is in fashion." The aesthetic of the African diaspora is in high demand today—from the global influence of Lagos Fashion and Design Week to Marvel's anticipated cash out with Black Panther. And The Nest Collective—those arbiters of Kenyan cool—provide us with a lens to reconsider our own agency in making sure our culture and our voices are not appropriated.

This One Went to Market was commissioned for Performa 17, but it is a continuation of The Nest Collective's We Need Prayers: This One Stayed Home, which debuted earlier this summer. Here, a married couple awakens to their neighbors being robbed in Nairobi, Kenya. The film is funny and light, as the couple bicker about how to protect themselves best ("Let's post on Facebook: ANNOUNCEMENT, ANNOUNCEMENT, ANNOUNCEMENT!") while deciding early on that their neighbors are on their own. Using "Nairobbery" as the setting, This One Stayed Home reveals the way post-colonial forces—for example, a widening wage gap and poor infrastructure that have led to increased crime—have alienated us from each other.

The series also includes two of Nest Collective's previous fashion films: the moody Dinka Translation (2013), a video look book of designer Katungulu Mwendwa's pre-fall 2013 collection, and To Catch a Dream (2015), a stunning, surreal tale of love and loss that features eight Kenyan designers, including Mwendwa and Adèle Dejak.

Photo courtesy of Performa and The Nest Collective.

But the most powerful short film is When We Are/When We Are Not (2016), a series of beautiful, silent shots of black bodies in repose. A man lying in a truck tire's tread; a woman in a lush, green forest; a hand hanging over the side of a bathtub with candles lit in the background. The film explores public black silence and stillness as it relates to methods of protest. It is especially relevant as Colin Kaepernick's silent protest against police brutality continues to polarize white and black populations. The mostly white owners thought banning Kaepernick from playing in the NFL would smolder his dissent; instead, its fanned the flames, inspiring a global movement.

When We Are/When We Are Not emphasizes this point: even when black bodies are still, our presence alone speaks volumes. If The Nest Collective is telling us anything, it's that our voices, whether figurative or literal, are more powerful than we realize.
Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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