Arts + Culture

NextGen: Isaiah Wakoli's Stimulating Art Is Inspired by Color's Interaction with Human Behavior

Kenyan artist Isaiah Wakoli looks to his experience living with color synesthesia as inpsiration for his digital art.

DIASPORAOver the course of July we'll be publishing short profiles, essays and interviews on the theme of "Afrofutures." Together these stories will be a deep dive into the way African and diaspora thinkers, technologists and artists view a future for Africans in the world and outside of it. 


Take a look at our introduction to Afrofuturism here.

Throughout this month, we'll also highlight and celebrate young, leading talents who already put into practice what a future with black people look like through their work in our daily profile series, 'NextGen.'

In our ninth edition, meet Kenyan artist, Isaiah Wakoli. 

We’ve featured several artists in the NextGen series who use graphic design, photography and visual art to stimulate our eyes and transport our minds to foreign worlds. Every artist has a unique style and perspective that inspires us to view our tangible world more critically and creatively. But Kenyan artist Isaiah Wakoli actually does see the world differently than some of us do, and it accents his vibrant, boisterous art: he has a rare gift called color synesthesia.

“I’m inspired by color, light and human behavior,” Wakoli says via email. “I have this rare condition called color synesthesia. I love color. I always try to associate moods and feelings with different colors. I love light, how it can fall on one thing and give it a certain character and yet again fall differently on the same object and give it a different character.

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Synesthesia is a “union of the senses” or the rare ability to associate two or more senses with one another: such as seeing colors when tasting food or hearing music, or viewing letters and numbers as people, with actual personalities, moods and more. For some time, synesthesia was believed to be a mental dysfunction, or a philosophical topic that questions creativity and consciousness, but now more researchers are striving to understand it deeply, and synesthetes are welcomed to express their sensual experiences.

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Wakoli’s art, which is saturated in rich, bold hues and shades, imagines people on lonely planets, morphing into nature or exposing a subtle, introspective side of humanity. “Human behavior has also been interesting to look at (in my work)—how everyone is quite unique in their own way," he says. "How their culture is a big part of their lives, and what happens when their culture crosses paths with a different one.” Perhaps the key to understanding nature, human behavior and the wonder of color, is in the synesthete’s ability to unite one sense with another.

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"I've been writing this on and off since it all happened," she explains in a thread on Twitter. "The original manuscript is over 300 pages. I *needed* to record every detail while they were fresh, so there are parts of this book that I wrote while I still wasn't quite able to walk."

Here's a snippet of the synopsis from the publisher below:

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Photo by Hamish Brown

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It took the author Lemn Sissay almost two decades to learn his real name. As an Ethiopian child growing up in England's care system, his cultural identity was systematically stripped from him at an early age. "For the first 18 years of my life I thought that my name was Norman," Sissay tells OkayAfrica. "I didn't meet a person of color until I was 10 years of age. I didn't know a person of color until I was 16. I didn't know I was Ethiopian until I was 16 years of age. They stole the memory of me from me. That is a land grab, you know? That is post-colonial, hallucinatory madness."

Sissay was not alone in this experience. As he notes in his powerful new memoir My Name Is Why, during the 1960s, tens of thousands of children in the UK were taken from their parents under dubious circumstances and put up for adoption. Sometimes, these placements were a matter of need, but other times, as was the case with Sissay, it was a result of the system preying on vulnerable parents. His case records, which he obtained in 2015 after a hardfought 30 year campaign, show that his mother was a victim of child "harvesting," in which young, single women were often forced into giving their children up for adoption before being sent back to their native countries. She tried to regain custody of young Sissay, but was unsuccessful.

Whether they end up in the foster system out of need or by mistake, Sissay says that most institutionalized children face the same fate of abuse under an inadequate and mismanaged system that fails to recognize their full humanity. For black children who are sent to white homes, it often means detachment from a culturally-sensitive environment. "There are too many brilliant people that I know who have been adopted by white parents for me to say that it just doesn't work," says Sissay. "But the problem is the amount of children that it doesn't work for."

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