Meet 17-Year-Old Austro-Nigerian Photo Genius David Uzochukwu

17-year-old David Uzochukwu is already making an impact in the photo world. We get to know the young artist.

Belgium-based Austro-Nigerian photographer David Uzochukwu has been making an impact in the photo world for a few years now. At just 17-years-old, the award-winning artist has already earned accolades from Canon, Flickr and EyeEm, who named him their 2014 Photographer of the Year. His clients include the Opéra Nationale de Paris and Adobe Photoshop. In March, Uzochukwu will appear in the upcoming mo(ve)ments: African Digital Subjectivities at Yale’s AFRICA SALON.

We get to know the young artist in the conversation below.

Ifeanyi Awachie for Okayafrica: How would you describe your cultural background? What does the label “African” mean to you?

Uzochukwu: I usually say I’m Austro-Nigerian. There are people who refer to me as an “African photographer” — usually those aren’t people who actually know me. I do feel like the label “African” is used to just trivialize. It’s kind of an umbrella term. Usually I say I’m Austro-Nigerian or an Afro-European artist because just “African” is not who I am either.

It doesn’t tell the full story.

Exactly. Especially since I’ve lived in Europe, I wouldn’t want to be labeled African for the sake of people who are completely African and who have their own story to tell.

Are there African photographers, other African artists, or aspects of African culture that have influenced your work?

I know close to no modern African art, but Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work has been influencing me lately, and both my love for bold colors and my yearning for freedom are very Igbo. I really like her use of colors and space and mood. Her subjects are removed from their scenery, and the colors she uses really accentuate the kind of somber mood she’s going for — melancholic. I feel that. I can relate to that. I feel like “No Place for Nature” and “Marsh Warbler” capture what I love about her paintings. The quiet mood, the use of space, the single dominating color deciding the work’s atmosphere. It’s bold and delicate at the same time.

Do you identify as Igbo? Are there aspects of your upbringing and parenting that were influenced by Igbo culture?

My father is Igbo, and he did try to raise me like an Igbo father would. I don't identify as Igbo though, there's just so much about the culture that I don't know.

How would an Igbo raise a child?

A lot of it has to do with respect for elders. So, that can be a very good thing, obviously, like, you just respect their wisdom and their knowledge and the fact that they’ve experienced so many things that you haven’t yet. But, on the other side, what comes with it is you as a young person often find that your experiences are being devalued and you’re not taken seriously. I feel what comes with Igbo upbringing is often that children or young people are not as respected as they could be, but their feelings are technically just as valid.

My mother did have a more European approach. There was kind of a clash. It’s interesting to look back and see the upsides and downsides. For example, when addressing my parents, when I address my father, I actually never felt quite as close to him as I did to my mother, which is kind of a result of having to treat him with more respect, not necessarily respect that is earned but just respect that is demanded. Even if he does deserve it, that’s not something a child necessarily understands.

Whereas your mother’s approach, the European approach, was to earn your respect?

I feel like that’s pretty accurate. To treat young people like they would another adult, to show them the same respect they would show to adults. Not all European parents are like that way — I know some people who have not been raised that way — but that’s one way [my parents’] methods parted.

Could you say more about how or why Igbo people "yearn for freedom?” What do you want freedom from? Or freedom to do?

All Igbos I know crave Biafra's independence. I've always just wanted to be free to live as an artist, as who I am.

What was it like growing up black in Luxembourg?

I’ve had my fair share of experiences with racism in Luxembourg. The country’s population isn’t very diverse. I only knew a handful of other black kids, which could be hard at times. My childhood was wonderful though; there are worse places to be black.

Did people ever see you as African first? Does that affect interactions you have?

I feel like most people did, actually. Most people that aren’t Luxembourgish are southern European, so you really do stand out as a black person. That definitely affected people’s interactions with me. They had lower expectations and higher expectations at the same time. When they saw that I was able to communicate with them like a normal human being, they raised them. I consistently had to prove myself. They were just trying to make my life harder.“

You’ve said you “want to create work that actually changes something.” What social justice issues do you care about?

How could I not care about a social justice issue? I’m a big defender of intersectionality and I care about anything that keeps someone from living the best life they possibly could. I’m working on whatever I get the chance to work on.

What intersecting identities do you have or care about in particular?

I care about pretty much everything. Usually it’s so hard because people, for example, like white people — people that were confronted with the fact that racism is still a thing — were completely shocked. They didn’t believe me, they thought I was lying — I’ve had horrible clashes with people. I feel this need to bring to people’s awareness that racism exists. If racism is the starting point, there are so many forms of discrimination that can be layered with that, like sexism, homophobia and ableism.

How does that relate to your work?

By portraying people that are being discriminated against at different levels, that kind of helps by telling their story, showing them as multilayered or multifaceted characters. But I really have a lot of work to do, I’ve only recently started to make work about this. I’ve only recently grown aware of the fact that telling a black body’s story is somehow revolutionary in itself today. There’s a distinct lack of black bodies in Western media and art and I’ve found making art with black bodies to fight against that is something very beautiful. My photos show that African subjects of any kind can be just as profound as anyone else. I want to create layered characters, tell black stories, get rid of stereotypes and portray us as humans.

Let’s talk about your self-portraits and your creative process. I notice that in many of your photos, you’re pictured with eyes closed and half-submerged in water or covered in paint. What went through your mind as you made those artistic decisions?

You have to know that coming up with concepts isn’t something that I do very consciously. Looking back on the work I make I can try to somehow interpret the mood I was going for, because I was going for a certain feeling, a certain visual sometimes. I’ve noticed the closed eyes because I have a total of about ten pictures with eyes open [laughs]. I feel like it gives pictures something very soft and very quiet. It’s a moment where the viewer can actually view freely and observe what is going on in the picture. It’s kind of introspective as well. You see someone with their eyes closed and they’re thinking, they’re dreaming; they’re hoping.

What draws you to nature and natural elements?

In a way, just their magnificence. I grew up in Luxembourg for ten years. It’s very rural — there are loads of fields and forests. You get to really appreciate nature. I moved to Brussels two years ago. Ever since then, the one thing that brightens up my week is a beautiful sunrise. I can draw so much energy from real, raw beauty. It sounds very cliché, but it’s true in a way. It’s so calm and so big and it’s been here for so much longer than we have. And it will be. In its grandness, in a way.

Your accomplishments at this young age are extremely impressive. What do you think of your success so far? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

It’s been mad. I’ve been uploading pictures onto the internet for four to five years before anything happened, and then everything happened really quickly. I’m kind of not really trusting the success but making the best of it. It’s been really amazing to have people reach out and tell me stories and tell me that they could relate to my pictures and that they moved them. And I’m really glad I got to meet the people who I got to meet and that I got to show my work in physical spaces, and that I got signed with my agency sometime last year. It’s just really cool — the fact that people believe in you and like your vision and what you do.

Any interest in collaborating with African artists in your future work?

Absolutely. I know very, very few African photographers, which is very sad and which I’m trying to rectify at the moment. There are two African designers I found on Instagram in the past year who I’d like to work with: Loza Maléombho and Kibonen NY. Apart from that, I’m always open to work with African youth; that’s something I’d love to do. Like anyone — you don’t have to be successful or creative, you just got to be you, be honest, share your story with me and I’ll try to make your portrait. I’m thinking about going to Nigeria and working with people there. Obviously I’d also love to work with people with a bigger profile.

Ifeanyi Awachie is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer and curator of Yale's AFRICA SALON. She recently published the book “Summer in Igboland." Follow her on Twitter at @ifeanyiawachie.

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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