Arts + Culture

Paul Sika: The Ivorian Photographer With ‘Visions Of Things To Come’

Interview with pioneering Ivorian photographer Paul Sika, a new voice in African photography whose work blends photography and filmmaking.

*Interview by Derica Shields

Ivorian photographer Paul Sika has birthed his very own style. He calls it 'photomaking' and combines digital photography with painterly post-production to produce brightly-coloured, densely textured images teeming with energy and drama. Born in 1985, he travelled to the UK to study Software Engineering, in the hopes of making video games — that was the dream until he had an epiphany while watching the trailer for The Matrix Reloaded. He purchased a camera, began taking photographs and moved back to Abidjan where a burgeoning arts scene always provides inspiration and a cast of young creative people contribute to his photographic practice.

In contrast to the established tradition of West African studio photography, Paul Sika's richly imagined images are dense with highly saturated colour and bodies striking exaggerated poses. His aim is to force the viewer into an unfamiliar headspace, in which a new conversation — quite outside the ordinary — can begin. So when Sika said that he hoped, with his work to give "visions of things to come," we began to understand just what he meant. Flick through the gallery above and read on to learn more about Paul Sika's global influences; his unique concept 'photomaking'; a guide to the Abidjan arts scene and understand the importance he places on critical engagement with African photography.

OKA: Have you always been creative?

Paul Sika: I'm naturally inclined towards creativity. Since I was a kid I've been fascinated by storytelling, but I didn't realize or put it into words until later. I simply had not conceived of it as being creativity. But I loved doodling and my cousin and I would invent stories to tell each other before sleep using characters inspired by people at school.

OKA: What made you switch from studies in Software Engineering to photography? 

PS: One day I was walking down Tottenham Court Road and saw a trailer for Matrix 2: Reloaded. Mesmerized, I thought to myself that if this was the type of imagination required to make great movies, then I was well equipped. I was glad to change direction because I thought of filmmaking as a great avenue of creative expression, and a more suitable avenue than making video games, which was the reason I was enrolled on a Software Engineering course. Not wanting to stop my engineering studies, I bought a camera and started experimenting with the static image which I conceptualized as the unit of the moving picture. Surprised by the vastness of the medium, I remained in the field of photography.

OKA: Was your family encouraging?

PS: My family didn't encourage or support me in the beginning. They were wondering what I was trying to do. But the situation became an indirect opportunity for me to sharpen my determination, perseverance, resilience and other qualities that I needed to realize my dream. Today, my parents understand what I am doing. As it became clearer to them, support naturally sprung up. It has happened gradually. I'll use the opportunity to say thanks to my mother and my sister, my two ladies; they have done so much for me.

*Paul Sika, from the 'Dandelia' series

OKA: Why do you prefer the term 'photomaker' to photographer? Do you see your work pushing at the boundaries of the photographic medium?

PS: Photomaking is a term I coined by combining PHOTOgraphy and filmMAKING. It underscores the fact that my photography is heavily influenced by filmmaking. I think of myself as a motion picture director using a still photo camera. In terms of goal, my method is not to push boundaries, but to express my imagination to its fullest and tell beautiful stories.

OKA: Can you describe your technical process? Has it become more systematic over the years?

PS: Influenced by filmmaking, my technical process starts with imagining the story, which I then write down as a script. I break that script down into sequences which eventually become photos. Then I cast models and we rehearse if needed. After that comes principal photography, which produces the digital stills I use in post-production. And finally I apply a layer of digital painting to create the look necessary to effectively tell the story. This process has streamlined over time as I gained more experience.

OKA: Your works are based on digital stills, but the final images are these vivid 'technicolour dreamscapes' that look almost like paintings. Why do you choose to work in such bold, bright colours and create these more painterly images?

PS: Colour is an element of my story-telling as important as the shapes of objects and lighting of the scene.  It reflects the essence of the story I'm telling and helps foster a certain mood. The colours I use also grab people's attention: in a busy world where we move fast and are bombarded by visual, audio and other sensory stimuli, they shout at the viewer's mind, and work to create the fraction of silence in the observer necessary to start the conversation.

OKA: There's a strong tradition of studio photography in Francophone West Africa (Sidibe, Keita, Mama Casset), do you see your work as part of that tradition? Often your images are crowded with people, shot outdoors and look like stills from a play or movie. What are your photographic references or influences?

PS: Just like a sailor searching for a grand treasure, I've taken the direction which will lead me to the fulfillment of my vision of art and photomaking. Thus my positioning has been orchestrated in accordance with my own cherished destination rather than relative to the people who have travelled before me.

Regarding influences, the world of filmmaking started it all: The Matrix and Star Wars particularly. Years of video games introduced me to various aesthetics I love: Zelda, Mario Bros, Street Fighter, Tekken, Capcom VS SNK 2. Comic books and animation, be they from Japan, Europe or Africa, must also get credit: Le Journal de Mickey, Lucky Luke (Morris, Goscinny), Dragon Ball Z (Toriyama) and some of the anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki have been influential In terms of painters, although I'm more interested in single pieces than whole bodies of work, Eugene Delacroix, Michelangelo, and Gauguin come to mind.

OKA: What kinds of representations of Cote d'Ivoire/Abidjan are you trying to create with your photography? What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

PS: Recalling my conscious wish to be a filmmaker and photographer, my first goal is to tell beautiful stories that will contribute to the positive transformation and evolution of the human being. Cote d’Ivoire and Abidjan influence the language I use to tell those stories: they constitute a visual dictionary from which I take unique object-words to formulate the unique visual phrases that make up my stories. There is an entire language developed in my work using them, which could be the object of study.

*Paul Sika, from the 'Puneu Puneu' series. Character Joue Rose (Pink Chick) in a deep state of reflection and analysis that will lead him to the next phase of his life

OKA: In your interview with CNN you talk about wanting to show 'happiness, hope' and 'positivity' in your images. You also say that your work does not just aim to show people in a 'flattering' way but 'in ways that are real'. Why is that distinction - between 'flattering' and 'real' - important to you?

PS: Flattery is related to insincerity and falsification which are the complete opposite of my way, and by extension, of the way of the Artist. As a visual communicator and a storyteller my role and function is to shatter the deceits and illusions of life while relating things as they are, and offer visions of the things to come. Thus the happiness, hope and positivity which emanate from my work are truthful representations of what is. The purpose of my work is to bring balance.

OKA: Recently the international media has been discussing Ivorian art and the Abidjan arts scene in light of the 2010-11 post-election crisis. How was the arts scene impacted by the upheaval?

PS: The post-election crisis was the last Great Event in Cote d'Ivoire, therefore it's understandable that there is a reference to this deathly period when speaking of the Renaissance of Art. When Cote d'Ivoire creates more joyful events as a nation, references will eventually be made to those. The arts scene was impacted by the upheaval. Many projects were cancelled or delayed because of the instability. I had been chosen as the art director for TED x ABIDJAN but in the end, the event didn't happen.

*Paul Sika, from the Fouka Riddim series

OKA: Can you describe the Abidjan arts scene? How would you like to see it change or grow in terms of galleries, funding sources, buyers etc.?

PS: The Abidjan arts scene is at a younger stage compared to older and greater scenes such as New York City. However, a beautiful and accelerated growth is being initiated and sustained. New players are arriving and older participants are adopting new directions. We have for example the Donwahi Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Cécile Fakhoury Gallery which are world class exhibition spaces. Young collectors, nationals and internationals, are engaging in relationships with the scene. We can cite for example Frederic Tapé, a media and real estate entrepreneur. A critic I admire for his capacity to decode and explain art is Franck-Hermann Ekra who won first prize of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

The scene is burgeoning and teeming. And regarding the growth of the Ivorian art world, I’m convinced we are going to witness the type of revolution that the soccer world has known with the generation of players such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué.

*Paul Sika, from the 'Gloglo Gospel' series

OKA: Which Abidjan/Ivorian artists are producing work that you admire/think deserves more attention?

PS: In music: the singers O’New expand=1]Raymond, Mike Danon, Flora Ba and producers Nunshack aka Abdul-Said Sangaré. In film and theatre look out for Abass Zein, actor Certain Kouassi, director Jean-Vincent Digbé, the Children and Young people's Theater Company CEB AFRIKA. I've worked with Nader Fakhry's fashion line Fouka Riddim. Also look out for illustrators Frederick Denaf, and Charles Dadié of Delestron fame.

OKA: Can you tell us about future projects or plans?

PS: At The Heart of Me, my photo and prose book was released last month and became an Amazon art bestseller. Originally written in English, I plan to make it available in several other languages. Currently, the French version is ready and will be released soon. The Italian translation is also in the works. Anyone interested in translating can contact me; it will be a pleasure to exchange about it!

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

'The Spread' Is the Sex-Positive Kenyan Podcast Offering a Safe Space for Women and LGBTQIA+ Issues

'The Spread' is the podcast dedicated to "decolonizing" the way Africans talk about sex and sexuality, say it's creator Karen Kaz Lucas.

Karen Kaz Lucas is the revolutionary brainchild behind Africa's best-known sex positive podcast, The Spread. Three years in, the 52 podcast episodes, covering a range of diverse topics including: The Male-Female Pleasure Gap, Sex positive parenting, LGBTQIA+ issues, Kink, Reproductive Rights, and Porn vs. Reality, has listeners ranging from 6,000 to 21,000 and episode on SoundCloud.

Recently, The Spread had its first major event TheSpreadFest, a day-long event attracting over 600 people with diverse panels, workshops and more. It's been hailed as a truly safe and inclusive space for people of all sexual identities. Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to The Spread creator Kaz on her journey to decolonize sexuality, her motivation, and her hopes for the continent relating to matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the conversation below.

Karen Kaz LucasImage courtesy of 'The Spread'

What made you start The Spread podcast?

It was to address the key gaps in discussions around sex and sexuality and to create a safe space to discuss them. Younger people were either learning about sex from porn or on the flip side from a religious standpoint or the education system, where the focus is on the risks of engaging in sex (teen pregnancy, STIs etc). As such they were either getting information from a fear-based system, shame-based system or porn that has very little to do with real life sexual situations and intimacy. I wanted to create a safe space where people could talk about all issues related to sexuality but in an open, accepting and enlightening way. For me, this is an informal form of sex education that allows people to explore their sexuality from an unbiased perspective—no judgement, no shaming.

What's the reception been like so far?

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea that the podcast would grow and be as successful as it is now. People are hungry to meet similar people and have discussions without judgement. Of course, there are also people who react negatively to my work and say that this is a result of "Western influence." To those people, I say that they should know that the majority of my work is focused on decolonizing sexuality.

Great transition. I first saw the term "decolonizing sexuality" in your Instagram bio. What exactly does that mean?

Prior to Western intrusion, we already had our own sexual culture. I'm trying to remind people that certain things we embrace as "African" and defend when it comes to sex and sexuality, are elements that came to us through religion, Westernized education etc. The shame associated with sex and sexuality on the continent are remnants of Western teachings.

Prior to colonization many ethnic groups had religious healers who were neither considered male nor female but were gender fluid or intersex. There were ethnic groups that didn't base gender on anatomy but on energy. Gender fluidity on the continent was observed even more than you would find in the most liberal country right now. For some, you could physically have male features but possess female energy and live as a woman. Some people worshipped androgynous or intersex deities and believed that the perfect human being is both male and female. Certain tribes did not ascribe a gender to anyone until the age of puberty. In other communities, their priests were transgender, and they were the only ones who could conduct certain spiritual ceremonies. There is evidence that for several ethnic groups gay and lesbian relationships were not taboo. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has not been publicized or it is being revised as it does not fit in well with the idea that the continent is trying to now uphold as a patriarchal, heteronormative society. That is why the work of decolonizing sexuality is extremely important as we now have a generation that is open to questioning themselves. The generation of our parents lived in a time of oppressed and suppressed sexuality (among other things) as they themselves or their parents had suffered the colonial rape and pillage [both literally and metaphorically] of their lives. All they could carry was anger and fear. To survive they had to conform to what the oppressor enforced on them through religion, western education etc.

[Recently deceased] Kenyan writer and gay activist, Binyavanga Wainaina clearly outlines how it is only former British colonies that have anti-sodomy laws, which came during colonial times from the fear that British soldiers and colonial administrators would be corrupted by the natives while they were away from their wives. The law, the fears by the British government at the time, really are proof that some of the natives were already practicing sodomy.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What for you is the link between sex positive work and women's empowerment?

The average person might think that the type of work I'm doing is frivolous, but the reality is that when a society believes they have any right over women's bodies, we see all the terrible things that happen to women: rape, rampant femicide, violence against women and more. Reclaiming your sexuality as a woman is about asserting your own authority over your body—declaring the right to fulfilling, consensual sex of your own liking, the right to having children, or not having children if you don't want to, postponing or terminating a pregnancy. Once we accept the policing of women's bodies, it's a slippery slope.

Feminism is about women having equal rights and opportunities as men, and that also extends to their sex lives. My body, my choice. For those who are always ready to bash feminism, seeing it as women somehow trying to take over, dominate men, oppress men etc. They should realize that the only reason feminism exists, is because we live in a patriarchal world. Women are at the bottom of the rung, oppressed in thousands of ways. All we are trying to do, is get the same rights that men take for granted. Of course, to the ones who hold power, it will feel like a loss of power.

This is the reason why the topics we cover span everything from women's sexual pleasure to gender-based violence to LGBTQIA+ rights to women's reproductive health. All these discussions must happen in tandem.

Let's talk about the state of affairs in Kenya around various key issues, starting with female reproductive rights.

I'm working very closely with two organizations working on women's reproductive rights and abortion rights. The problem in Kenya is that there is so much misinformation. I plan to release a video very soon on the topic. I only recently found out all public hospitals in Kenya provide post-abortal care. Even though, abortions are illegal except in certain circumstances, post-abortal care is available throughout the country. Lack of information makes women especially vulnerable to the influence of quacks, back-alley doctors, or police who threaten them with imprisonment if they don't pay exorbitant bribes. The Kenyan law is that you are not allowed to administer an abortion unless the health of the mother or child is in danger. Health also includes mental health. As such, people with severe depression or suicidal thoughts do legally qualify for abortions, but most people don't know this.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about on the issue of sexual violence against women and children?

Sexual violence against women and children isn't taken as seriously as it should be. Sensitivity training across police stations is still lacking. Rape is extremely underreported in the country as most people don't expect to be treated with discretion, sensitivity or any consideration once they do get into the system. I did a whole video series years back interviewing female rape survivors and their experiences highlight the challenges with our police system including the trivialization of the crime by police officers who consider rape almost routine, given how often this happens. The statistics are masking the issue, rape survivors don't know who to turn to and feel completely isolated. The issues of male sexual violence against men isn't even spoken about as the survivors fear further shunning and stigmatization from society. Kenya doesn't yet have the right structures—including mental health structures—to deal with the normalization of rape and sexual violence against women.

In 2015 three men gangraped a teenage girl as she was on her way home from her grandfather's funeral. After the attack, they dumped her in an open sewer, leaving her with a spinal injury that has confined her to a wheelchair. When the men were taken to the police station, their punishment was to cut the grass around the police station. The incident made it to the news, sparking international outrage, resulting in a signed petition and leading to protests in the country demanding #justiceforliz. As a result, the men were eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. While we can celebrate this particular win, it also makes us reflect on all the other hundreds of thousands of cases, where the survivors remain silent or seek justice, but never get it.

What about LGBTQIA+ rights?

The definition I adhere to for this group is actually a longer, more confusing acronym, but also one I hope makes more people feel included. LGBTQQIAPPK, which is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual & transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, polyamourous, pansexual and kink.

We have some cause for celebration, but also a very long way to go. We were hopeful recently when the High Court reviewed the key law banning gay sex, but unfortunately, they chose to uphold it. Last year, we did have a small win when the courts deemed unlawful the use of forced anal exams to test whether two men had sex.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission of Kenya are doing a really great job in trying to get colonial era penal codes repealed. They are the legal team behind the court cases for the repeal of these laws. From a legal standpoint it's great, but from a social standpoint, it's still so sad that our binary understanding of gender is tied to what the colonizers forced on us. The worst argument is when people say that any deviation from the heteronormative narrative is "un-African." My question then is "Do you really know your history? Are you willing to educate yourself and to take off the yoke of colonialism and even consider the idea that what you consider normal is based on systems that came to you through oppression and repression?

For a country that is so progressive in many ways, this particular issue still remains an uphill battle.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about women's sexuality, sexual pleasure?

All the events we have are 95% women. Men are scared to admit they might not know it all. Society paints them to be macho and [makes them think] that they should somehow know it all, but they are scared to learn about their sexuality as they feel that it will take away from their masculinity. For women, it's empowering. Men are frightened about women learning and embracing their sexuality.

I want to be a part of this revolution, spearheading it on the continent.

Finally, tell us about The Spread Fest and your plans for it?

Our objective for the festival is to foster learning, inspiration and wonder—and to spark conversations that matter. The aim is to be more empathetic about our diversity, but also to leave people knowing more about sex and sexuality. This year we had 600 people in attendance, 5 panels, one workshop and it was a full day event. Next year, we plan to double everything.

Photos by Getty Images for BET.

Africa at the BET Awards 2019: Dispatches from the Blue Carpet

We talked to Burna Boy, AKA, DJ Cuppy and more about representing their people and remembering Nipsey Hussle.

We were at the 19th annual BET Awards this past Sunday to check out the ceremonies and chat up the international artists walking the blue carpet.

BET is the world's biggest platform for Black music and it has officially gone global. If you've never been, there's a feeling of organized chaos in the air that makes you feel like you're a part of something big. Artists from Africa and the diaspora have come a long way at the award show—once relegated to a non-televised role, the "Best International Act" award is now part of the 3-hour televised main ceremony for the second year.

This year the nominees contained many of OkayAfrica's favorites, including this year's winner, Burna Boywhose award was accepted by his mom, with a message of connectedness to the continent: "Remember you were Africans before you became anything else."

READ: The Internet Doesn't Know Mama Burna At All

Held at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the BET Awards hosted over 30 artists from the African continent. We caught up with many of them on the blue carpet including AKA, DJ Cuppy, Mr Eazi, Nomzamo Mbatha and Monalonga Shozi just to name a few. Under the June heat, African performers, presenters and nominees came to show out.

One of the big themes of the night was honoring slain Eritrean-American hip hop star Nipsey Hussle's life and legacy.

Burna Boy and Stefflon Don at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

When we asked him about it on the blue carpet, Burna Boy—dressed in an elegant Dolce and Gabbana two piece ensemble in emerald green and golden overtones—says:

"You never stop wanting to hear the work of black artists do you? After Nipsey's death, it was both an inspiration and a wake up call. This is the time to spread positivity and love because you never know man, you could be gone tomorrow. He left behind a great legacy and we're just going to carry it forward."

"Nipsey's death was really felt all over Africa," South African personality Mbatha tells us. Dressed in an original full floor length A-line dress made by South African designer Loin Cloth & Ashes, she remembers, "It wasn't just that he was an African, which he was, but he showed us that we still have flames in our community that we hope will never burn out. Thank God that flames like Nelson Mandela lived for as long as it has, because each generation picked up that flame and was able to believe we can make it out and when we do make it out, we can fight to make other people's lives better."

Nomzamo Mbatha at the 2019 BET Awards 2019. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

AKA at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

South African rap superstar AKA tells us just before the opening to the ceremony, "With me coming from South Africa, BET is all about black excellence and of course Black excellence is all about Africa. Everybody is on a wave right now recognizing the importance of African culture and the importance of where it comes from. Africa is the source of Black excellence."

The Nigerian Afro-fusion star Mr Eazi, another Best International Act nominee also met up with us outside. "As long as music is being made by Black people, African people will never stop being brilliant," he told us. "Most of the people from Africa that come to the BET Awards, about a good 60 percent come from Nigeria. I feel like this needs to be a Nigerian awards show. Maybe next year we'll just buy it up and make it a Nigerian show."

Mr Eazi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

DJ Cuppy at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

Nomalanga Shozi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET

Another big Nigerian name, DJ Cuppy, acted as a blue carpet host. "When I travel around the world," she says, "I feel like people are more invested in their roots. People are more engaged with where they come from and where they families come from and they're interested in learning about other cultures like never before."

"I'm all about taking Africa to the world but it think its just as important to bring the world back to Africa," Cuppy continues. "It's important that we're stressing connecting and do what we can to keep a strong community and making sure people know that we're all in this together."

TV personality and actress, Nomalanga Shozi tells us, "You have to recognize yourself as who you are. Honor yourself first then you can project that to the world. I think it's very important for us to honor ourselves and the BET Awards does that is such a grand fashion every year."

In the BET International section of the blue carpet, Nigeria-native Alex Okosi, the head of BET International shared a final thought on the important of awards shows. "It's a platform to elevate our people," he says. "Being able to showcase to the world our true power which is the power of Black culture is as important now then ever before."


Seba Kaapstad Is the Genre-Bending South African Jazz Band Spreading a Message of Optimism

We speak to two of the quartet's members about their latest album 'Thina.'

This profile is part of OkayAfrica's ongoing series on South Africa's new wave of young artists shaping the future of the country's music scene. You can read more profiles and interviews here.

Thina, Seba Kaapstad's sophomore album, is an anomalous body of work that smudges the lines between genres effortlessly. It's a huge departure from the South African four-member jazz group's debut album, 2016's Tagore's. "We are people that are genuinely interested in music and the impact that music has, and we are people that love to experiment and explore," says group member Zoë Modiga. "With Pheel (the group's newest member) hopping onto the band for production, it created so much more color than there was before."

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