Arts + Culture
Self-portrait. Photo by Stephanie Nnamani, courtesy of the artist.

NextGen: Teff Theory on How the Use of Color Leads Her Home

An in-depth conversation with the Nigerian visual artist on her thoughtful creative process, influences and more.

This week, 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.

We'll highlight and celebrate young, leading talents who already put into practice what a future with black people look like through their work in the return of our profile series, 'NextGen.'

Stephanie Nnamani, also known as Teff Theory, is the Nigerian visual artist, essayist, photographer and self-portraitist whose art is comprised of a distinct use of color. Hailing from Enugu, the creative's work serves as a form of spirituality and dissection of identity, culture, personal development and self-expression.

Her gaze is that of an individual going through life's hurdles as a black woman, a first-generation immigrant and a surveyor of life's many color palettes. Check out our talk with her below.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Audrey Lang for OkayAfrica: Tell me about the name Teff Theory—where does it comes from?

Stephanie Nnamani: My nickname comes from my name, Stephanie, and it evolved over the years—reflecting on my growth not only as an artist, but also as an individual. I just recently changed it to Teff Theory because I felt like it was something that offered me a space to really explore my works. 'Theory' came from my background in social science and it's my way of expanding on how I like to explore certain concepts. People like to say art is separate from science, but they really cross with each other—at least in my experience it's been so—and I like to communicate that in my use of colors and lines of repetition and shapes.

What is your creative process?

I tend to write something in terms of an essay and poetry and it ends up translating itself in my photography or in my graphics—it's never really intentional. I look at a picture and I'm like holy shit, the colors really look like the same colors that are captured here. That wasn't even intentional. So I noticed that synchronicity was happening within my work to the point that now it's very much intentional.

I try to create work that is communal. One piece like a photo communicates to the next photo and you can't really consume one photo without looking at the next one. I really believe it's like a network.

Do you spend a lot of time producing work?

I once secured my school's greenhouse and was in there from 8:00 a.m. until my class at 5:00 p.m. I still can't quite part with creating work that only makes sense to me. There is an unspoken sort of pressure to actually work for a larger audience. Much of my work is not published. I just sit and look at it. I'm sitting on at least 10 unpublished works and I really like to take my time. I value taking my time both for the process and with just sharing it with anyone basically.

Photo by Stephanie Nnamani, courtesy of the artist.

Do you create art full-time?

I work in research as a data collector. I'm always working—always watching people. Even though I'm more of a homebody; it's always interesting to watch how people respond to things, especially since my primary interest is with media and personality.

Can you tell me about the woman behind behind the art?

We moved to the United States when I was young and before that we moved to London. I guess the older I get, the more obvious that aspect of my identity is apparent. Being a first-generation immigrant is very much the chief aspect of my work and examining the nuances of what that reveals about my self, my purpose, and my work. I'm the youngest girl in my family and I also come from a family of six. Because I am a first-generation immigrant, my immigration status in this country has been ambiguous for much of my stay here. So a lot of the work that I did, I didn't want to connect to my name until there was some certainty connected to my status here in this country.

We are at the helm of an age in which women are empowered and in which black people are empowered. I wanted to ask you what you think the term Afrofuturism means or what it means to you. If by chance, do you feel like you're part of that terminology or that realm of art?

It is almost as if for an African artist to be received largely, their art has to align with ancestral aesthetics and I wholeheartedly support that, while also elevating the idea that there should be a more vast concept of what constitutes African art. The concept of Afrofuturism is not one I've considered in depth to put forth a cohesive definition of what it means to me. I think there are creatives like Lina Viktor and Trevor Stuurman whose work serves the African identity and is what I would suppose is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism pays homage to Africa and entertains it in the present not just the future.

Photo by Stephanie Nnamani, courtesy of the artist.

What are the most notable companies you've collaborated with?

Getty Images would be the most profound that I can name. I am a creative contributor for them. They picked up one of my recent projects that I did last year. It was widely received and they invited me to speak on a panel in London a few months ago. I'm currently working on a project for them that I can not speak on right now.

Your work is said to convey women's empowerment, as well as concepts of identity, culture, personal development and self-expression. Is there anything else?

You might have hit it all. A certain part of my work that I want to communicate is that it tries to reach individuals who share a similar narrative as me, whether they're first or second or third generation, who return home, the way in which they embrace home and the challenges that they face in terms of language barriers or simply not knowing how to re-immerse or establish intimacy. I throw it in there as often as possible for anyone else struggling with that to know that you know they're not alone and that it is quite a process—I really try to communicate the concept of absence and presence and otherness.

What does color mean to you?

When I was younger, my mother liked to dress me in red. When my dad would travel and he would come back, all my outfits were either red, orange, or red orange. I never thought about until a recent interview. That's when it occurred to me that that was my introduction to color as a subject, color as a means to expand expression, color as a means to communicate identity. Color has always been a thing, with my mom extending this to me, and I retained that. It repeats itself without me trying. My work has been very much committed to expounding on how color has essentially brought me home.

Audrey Lang is an alumna of Northeastern University and a Boston-based site merchandiser. A surveyor of life who's enamored with all things fashion, art and Africa, keep up with her on Instagram and Tumblr.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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