An image of an artwork by Ngima Thogo

Ngima Thogo draws inspiration from traditional African face masks and skin scarification identity marks of various cultures.

Photo: Ngima Thogo

How Ngima Thogo Unmasks Emotions Through his Work

The Kenyan artist taught himself to use digital tools to create a modern take on an African tradition.

Ngima Thogo is a Kenyan digital artist who lives and works in the capital Nairobi. Drawing inspiration from traditional African face masks, and skin scarification identity marks of various cultures, the self-taught Ngima has created several pieces that feature human characters with obscure masks in the place of their faces. He shares his work with fans on Instagram, where the likes of Sun El-Musician and others have sung his praises.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 25-year-old was a photographer in the city for a few years, while making art and freelancing on the side. Although the pandemic upended his photography, it did open up new opportunities for him to focus on his freelance and design work.

He spoke to OkayAfrica about his inspiration, artistic process, and how he taught himself.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your characters seem to have human bodies, yet their visage remains obscured by these masks…

It’s interesting. I recently realized that I never reveal facial expressions in my work. The characters are ever ‘faceless.’ It’s not intentional. It just feels right. The characters always have a striking form or body language. Body language becomes more relatable for the viewer, as facial expressions are more definitive. Seemingly, a happy, sad face is a happy, sad feeling. But body language leaves it more open for interpretation.

Where do you draw inspiration for this particular art form?

My influence compass points are in many aspects, from the intercultural heritage of traditional African face masks to scarification identity marks of various cultures. I also find joy in little details of the situations I encounter daily. I’ll get inspired by other individuals in my field that I look up to, such as Mankind (a fellow digital artist from Australia), brilliant artist. His work ethic is fascinating. I love YesterdayNite (a surrealist from Delaware) for his thought process. They are just too many to list. What stands out are artists who solve creatively and have a keen view.

What aspect of your work, if any, is a form of self-expression?

Much of my work stems from emotions and things that I’m feeling internally. Stuff like anxiety, solitude, doubt, loss, struggling with hyperhidrosis disorder [excessive heating not related to body temperature or exercise], for example. Sometimes the subjects may seem enigmatic, but I try to give these concepts a sense of importance, healing and hope through it. I seek to provide these feelings and emotions with an external interpretation that I can’t tell in words.

You’re self-taught. What were the efforts you made towards that?

Staying persistent in seeking knowledge. Being skilled and having great ideas is one factor, but taking the chance to learn the technical aspects of how a computer works. It isn’t something that you get to hear a lot. It’s essential to figuring out the ins and outs of how the computer program you use functions. And this takes time to build up such understanding to a point where it becomes an extension of your mind.

Consistency has played a key role. Devoting several hours to creating artwork and being disciplined enough to sit down and create something or learn something isn’t easy. Still, you will get results if you do it every day for a year or two. After that, your results compound, and your dreams will start to become a reality.

And your creative process? What does that look like?

My process starts with image selection, usually downloaded from various stock images sites. Once I’ve settled on the stock image, I load it up in a PSB file [a function of the photo editing software, Adobe Photoshop]. I select using the pen tool. From there, I jump into the camera raw. I then start the process of color extraction and reshaping, breaking down the image features in a way that I like. Then I use a histogram to determine how the model looks.

To come up with an approach for abstract design requires patience. It's a long process of ordering layers, altering them, and changing them. It can take up to a few days to weeks of exploring and editing. The process is the same every time, but also different for each project.

For the final enhancement, I run the visual through color grading and detail improvement, film grain, output sharpening, oil painting, and other build-in effectors. I will further run it through plugins like Film Pack by DxO.

Let's talk about collaborations. Which one has been significant for you?

I have had the pleasure to partner with the Adobe Photoshop team — a dream come true! — and am humbled to have collaborated with music artists globally.

Who do you hope to collaborate with in the future?

So many people! I would love to work with Brent Faiyaz. His talent to craft a distinctive mood and blend tones in a dreamy style with a beautiful ambience is 100% my cup of tea. I’m a massive fan of the TV drama series, Snowfall. They are always doing something exceptional. Their work influenced a lot of my art, especially in the earlier times when I was doing more poster designs. So, a dream collaboration would be Brent Faiyaz or Snowfall.

Art and activism -- do you think there's a place for an artist in social change?

When I think of the link between art and activism, for me, the question is what it could be, rather than what it is. I think of revolution. The artist reconstructs the immediate, renders the here and now, and shifts the world’s absurdity. The artist sees, creates, performs music, and tells a story outside society’s structure.

They have to approach it with genuine interest, humility, the capacity to observe, and respect for the view and expertise of other communities. But ultimately, the artist has a part in affecting social change.