Paul Sika Speaks On The Influence of Cinema, Video Games & Manga Comics w/ Prêt-À-Poundo

Photographer Paul Sika Speaks On The Influence of Cinema, Video Games & Manga Comics In An Exclusive Interview w/ Prêt-À-Poundo

Take one glance at Ivorian photographer Paul Sika's work and you'll be immediately hypnotized by colors and untold stories. We got the chance to speak to the  29 year-old self-taught artist about how he first fell in love with photography and sharpened his eye, while at the MASA Festival in Abidjan last month.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you get to photography?

Photography came as a surprise actually. I was in London about to start studying computer science, which is my big passion also. When I was working at Tottenham Court Road, I saw a trailer for The Matrix Reloaded and thought that I could make good films like it. That's how I turned to art. So, as I was studying computer science, I just started. I bought a camera in order to experiment a bit with taking pictures before moving to film eventually. I stayed in the field because I discovered how huge it was.

Did you go to school for photography later?

I applied for a photo school and was accepted but I didn’t go. There were several reasons why but, mainly, I felt that I'd have better growth if I was outside [of school]. So, I remained outside.

Was it a challenge to start on your own?

Well, yes! But although it was a challenge, because I love and am so passionate about photography, it didn't feel like a burden. It felt like a natural step to overcome every time. I've been in this spirit, in this mindset, in this atmosphere, since I’ve started this.

How were your first photographs? What did they look like?

I remember when I bought my first camera we went to the London Bridge with my friends. My pictures were all blurry. It was at night, the photoshoot, and everything was blurry [laughs]. There was something I hadn’t understood about how fast you take a picture in low lights and things like that. They were all blurry and it was a shock! When I downloaded the photos to my computer, I was like… man… everything is blurry [laughs]. That was my first photoshoot.

Where can we find those pictures?

England. When I move back to the Ivory Coast, I left a lot of stuff there. I’m such a light traveller. I don’t carry much baggage or luggage. Even when I move, I tend to not stay too long where I passed. I carry this in many aspects of my life. When I moved from London, there was some stuff that I left there. I didn’t go back to finish it. Part of it was this lot of CDs and photographs. I don’t even know where they are. Those photos were in there somewhere. I saved them on purpose, though. Someday, I'll see how blurry they were. [laughs] My style has changed so much. It looks nothing close to when I first started. If you see my first photos and my photos now, it’s like seeing two different people.

"Basically, I wanted to make a moving picture through style photography. I wanted to make complex pictures — not complex for the sake of it— but in order to tell stories"

How did you progress from these blurry pictures to what you do know?

After the blurry pictures I wanted to take some monochrome and sharp ones [laughs]. So I did a lot of black and white, I would shoot everything: a window, a part of the street, the tube, I would just shoot anything! At some point, I started to get kind of bored about what I was doing. I thought that there had to be something beyond that. I started to look for another type of photography. Back then,when I saw the trailer for The Matrix, I thought: "I want to do cinema." Cinema pushed me into photography as an experiment of faith. My passion for cinema remains in mangas and video games, so I invested those outlets back into my photography.

This is where it all comes from. I’ve been consuming animé, movies, and avideo games since I was a kid but I never thought I'd do art. I remember when I was in high school, someone invited me to join the photography club and I answered, "Really? What do you guys do there?" The person described it passionately, "you know,we develop film photography in dark rooms." Because I was comparing that description with the fun I had with video games and computers, I was like, "man, you can’t compare photos that come out of a dark room [to the] cool stuff that comes out from my computer. I’m not gonna do photography on the side." I was invited twice and declined both times, so I surprised myself when I actually became a photographer.

How did you find your own style?

It’s the cinema part. It’s the video game part. The storytelling part of moving pictures that lends itself back to photography. Basically, I wanted to make a moving picture through style photography. I wanted to make complex pictures — not complex for the sake of it— but in order to tell stories, have layers, and be captivating. Actually, I kind of learned some filmmaking and just applied it back to photography. It being an aesthetic medium, they were some amendments to make so the style translated to photography.

It's roughly the same process: I imagine the stories, I place them on a some type of developing sequence, but I don’t do storyboards because I don’t know how to do them [laughs]. Afterwards, I share them with the people I wanna shoot with – the 'actors.' In the beginning it was just normal people but at a point it became important to have actors because what I was asking was so difficult. People couldn’t deal with that pressure. So, I share it with my cast and we rehearse, if necessary. Then come the principles of photography: we shoot and I do the post production.

"I have to feel the beauty without grasping all of it at the same time. That’s very important for me"

Generally, what kind of actors are you looking for?

The cast depends on where my feelings are at. I don’t organize a casting. I don’t gather people to cast them. Maybe, someday, I’ll do it. But, so far, I'll just meet people and, if I think that a person is interesting to shoot, I'll make a mental note. For example, if someday I have to do something, I should bring this person to the table.

What made you choose such a colorful palette?

It’s something I followed without realizing why at the beginning. It’s just something I wanted to see. I think the colors form patterns and textures in a certain way. Personally, I love to look at something so deeply that my mind doesn’t rest easy. This is how I know something is beautiful, if I don't master it from the first take. Whenever I do something, I have this personal need to create something that my mind hasn’t mastered on the first take. It has to be moving, somehow, and I have to feel the beauty without grasping all of it at the same time. That’s very important for me. So, the colors have this role and, by extension, we live in a busy world where we see many pictures, videos, people speaking. There are lots of voices out thereand somehow [the colors] make you stop. It’s the pattern, intricacy and how the colors are laid out. It makes the picture shout and say: listen to me for one second! And that one second is what you need in order to look at it, grab the picture for just one second, it’s enough. Once you have it, you have the rest.

"My art is not just photography or storytelling, it's at the crossroads of both paths."

What are the stories you’re telling?

At first, I told stories that I was kind of imagining, that were set in our world. Then, I thought of adapting some stories. For example, there's a section of the bible from The New Testament called The Servant of the Mount that I interpreted in contemporary Abidjan. I interpreted other stories twice but eventually started wondering about my own stories. Throughout my first collection you can feel this. You can feel the stories are coming out. My art is not just photography or storytelling, it's at the crossroads of both paths. This is where I actually am now. Yes, I'm telling stories and I hope to compile these in a complete, fully fleshed-out saga. I love Star Wars, for example.

You talk about crossroads. You used to reside in England and you’re from Ivory Coast. You have a kid playing video games and you have a women washing clothes. We can feel the two roads.

There are several roads that come to one. I love to say that an artist doesn’t create. An artist receives and transmits. I was born here, I fed, I captured the things that are developed here. I also watched a lot of mangas, a little bit of Japan. I went to England indeed and I stayed there for four years. Four years immersed in a new country, which itself is a mix of several countries. I was spending so much time watching movies. I could watch movies all day in my bedroom in the dark [Laughs]. I had my little notepad and while the movie was going on, I was taking notes. This is how I went to art school.

I pay attention to my intuitions. My intuition was: go back home. And I understood why.

Have you visited Japan?

No, but I would love to. I’m working on it. I hope to go to Japan.

Why did you move back to Ivory Coast?

It was a really strong feeling. I can’t think of a reason but I am also a really intuitive person. I pay attention to my intuitions. My intuition was: go back home. And I understood why.


Because there’s many things I wouldn't have done if I wasn’t here. These photos wouldn't have been made if I wasn’t here. I started this style in Ivory Coast. The photomasking style has one photo shoot as it's genesis: that’s Asana Diallo. In that picture, the tall ladies, I shot them in Ivory Coast while I was on holiday. I was a computer science student on summer break. All of it was done here.

How did you get to that aesthetic? How did you learn it?

I was reading all those video games reviews. They were really tough. The graphics were important, describing all the technical words for it. I was reading so many Consoles + editions that I was becoming a reviewer myself. You know, I would read everything, from cover to cover, even the fine letters. This is where my money used to go. It doesn’t look like it but, indirectly, I went to school too. I was looking carefully at these video game graphics and it taught me something. I didn’t realize where this was going. I didn’t know that I was learning something.

When you look at the colors in my pictures, think of video games and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Look at animé and mangas, all the work that they have to do. 

What’s the thing that inspires you? What was your favorite as a kid?

I'd say video games. I would play constantly. I'd spend all day playing video games. I used to love fighting games like Street Fighter. Another game that I will never forget was Zelda — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a masterpiece. You know you play those games and you know what you love. If you're a tough reviewer, on Consoles + for example, it kind of increase your standard of beauty and aesthetics. When you look at the colors in my pictures, think of video games and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Look at anime and mangas, all the work that they have to do. They have to make the characters really expressive. I was in school all the time. I was learning and I had no idea.

Is there a place for photographers and artists in Abidjan?

I do live from photography. Around 40 to 50 percent of the collectors of my work are from Ivory Coast. The rest are in Europe and America. It’s an impressive game and I have a cool gallery.

This is our first time in Abidjan and we have the impression that there’s a lot of things happening. Is it like this all year long?

Well, the scene is building up: the galleries and foundations are really important in Abidjan. There’s few galleries that are really working a lot and some of them are having openings every week or every two-to-three weeks. You have a lot of young people doing their stuff. People are not only working on the art stuff but also the web. The things that are happening are really interesting. For what the country is, I would say that photography is booming.

What are you working on right now?

The codename of the project is Souvenirs. It has to deal with memory as a collective. It’s going to be massive and collaborative. This is all I can say for the moment. We are working on it heavily. It'll be great because people from here will be participating. It will be available in May.

I heard that you were the grandson of Andy Warhol.

[Laughs] I almost started believing it. I said it once as a joke and it ended up in a piece. But the truth is that I love Andy Warhol’s work but the person who really inspired me is David LaChapelle, who was at some point under Warhol. So, this is where the joke comes from. Thank you Okayafrica for clearing that up! [Laughs]

You can currently see Paul Sika's work at Hôtel Ivoire in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. We'll keep you posted on the upcoming project. Scroll through our gallery to viewthe photographs and if you want to talk about it, tweet @okayafrica with #paulsika.

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

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