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The Artist Is Present: Congolese-French Illustrator Nicholle Kobi's Drawings Shamelesly Celebrate the Strength of Black Women

In the latest edition of our series, we catch up with illustrator Nicholle Kobi on the purpose and process of her work.

Nicholle Kobi is a black French illustrator whose work oozes black girl magic. Her drawings celebrate the plurality of black women. In a day and age where we are still not held in high regard, she celebrates our curves, skin color, hair texture, and style.

Born in Kinshasa, Congo but raised in Normandy, France by her father, she has a voice that is both unique and strong.

“I think I have always been an artist. The weird one. The crazy one," Kobi says.

"My oldest memory about drawing was when I was 5. I was drawing on my stepmother's Amina magazines. It was black and white. When she was finished reading them I would draw on the women's faces and change their clothing. I studied art in middle school. Everybody hated art but I loved it. I loved to draw. People see art as recreation. I took it seriously. I went to an art school for high school. We studied 10 to 15 hours of art every week. My father always told me I had to attend Beaux-Arts (one of the most notable art schools in France) in Rouen or Paris. I wasn't accepted into the school but I moved to Paris to study art history, fashion design, and modeling in a preparatory program."

Photo courtesy of Nicholle Kobi.

With her heart set on art but a lack of encouragement, Kobi gave up this dream. She was lost. Her father was in the middle of a divorce and her teachers told her she would never find a job if she continued on the path she was on. She switched gears and studied banking and insurance. In her roles in the business industry, she was miserable. She would work 2 years in companies and grow so weary she jumped ship. She fought her desire to do something something creative as she doodled on her contracts.

In the last company she worked at, salvation came in the form of pregnancy and being put on bedrest. While home, she needed something to do. She REALLY drew for the first time in over 10 years. The mother of two, at the time, taught herself photoshop and graphic design. Her first post on Instagram quickly gained traction and the rest, well, is history in the making.

Kobi is now 4 years into a career as a black illustrator who draws black women in a France that isn't ready for her. “French black people are taught to assimilate," she says. Where African Americans and blacks everywhere but home embrace her with open arms, there she is met with, “You can not openly draw black people. You must draw white people." It is still very much a society in which you must adhere to white standards.

Her peers want to be approved by their white counterparts. They have to love France more than their white counterparts. They must never criticize it. Kobi notes the France she comes from “is not ready to see a group of successful black women. They are not ready to see black love. Seeing a black family means you have a black husband and black children. In a group of white people, you will always have one black friend, not two or three. This is how France has built the black French mentality. On television you will never see a normal black couple but you will see mixed couples." The most successful black bloggers in Paris are married with white men and display their mixed children on their platforms as though they are trophies. Black parents say things like, “Get married with a white guy and you will be good." She is combating the aforementioned. “This is the result of colonization," the artist affirms. She recounts going to a Christmas party with her family and asking for photographs of them she assumed had been taken, later on. To her dismay, the photographer sends her an image of mixed children and is confused when told these aren't members of her family. Her greatest pride is having black children. “My children are the only black children with two black parents, from my generation, at their school," she says.

The French idea of assimilation asks immigrants to abandon their cultures because it holds there isn't unity in diversity. It creates identity conflicts that go so deep it would take a book or three to explain them in a way that makes sense. The above simply scratches the surface of what it's like to live in the country. Art like Kobi's is critical in such a place. Her work resonates with me because I am a Cameroonian woman born in Paris. My immigrant parents navigated through the France she speaks of and on many occasions, my mother has encouraged me to marry outside of my race so as to “be good." I have a friend of Ivorian and Senegalese descent who was born in and spent the majority of her life in France but refuses to identify as French. “They don't accept us. I am African. They will never accept us as French," she says. Surprisingly, the majority of the racism Kobi has experienced in Paris has come from Northern Africans, which is more painful because you wouldn't expect such from them. It is obvious France has a long way to go.

You would think combating an ideology like assimilation has got to take some mentoring, right? When asked what women have inspired her, the illustrator says, “I didn't have any close female figures. My mother wasn't in my life and my stepmother and I didn't get along. I am surprised when my kids say they idolize me." Despite not having a woman mold her into who she is, there was a moment that changed her, “When I was 10 or 11, I was watching a documentary about African American history. I saw a woman on sitting alone on a bus. The man spoke about Rosa Parks. I was so shocked to see this black women on a bus being yelled at by white men. I cried. I wanted to be her."

The artist laughs as she controversially states the French will throw fits when they hear her say, “I love women's history. I recently read a book about Kimpa Vita who fought against Congolese colonization. I love to hear about strong women. Black women are more powerful than they can imagine. I love to learn about black women. I don't care about Simone De Beauvoir. Marie Antoinette doesn't interest me. Coco Chanel doesn't interest me. I am sorry to say this. Black women sacrifice their lives and no one talks about them."

Kobi is pushing forward despite the challenges she must face. To her, the most difficult aspect of doing what she does is, “To keep creating. To be creative. There is an evolution in my art work from where I started to today. If you are afraid to try new things, you will be old fashioned. People look to creatives to surprise them, especially black ones." With work that embraces black women, there leaves room for the inclusion of men. She reveals, “Before I came here, I started drawing a group of black men. I look forward to finishing it but it needs to be perfect."

In the near future, Kobi hopes to open a studio in New York, work on an animated series, and launch a capsule clothing collection.

She may or may not have already inked deals with two major greeting card manufacturers. Shhh…

Catch Nicholle Kobi on the second half of her art exhibition tour, keep up with her on Instagram, and her pieces are available for purchases here.


Audrey Lang is an alumna of Northeastern University and a Boston-based merchandiser who's enamored with all things fashion, art and Africa. Keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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