Nataal delves into the unique worlds of Nairobi’s young digital and graphic artists

On a recent trip to Nairobi with the British Council’s East Africa Arts Programme, Nataal met with four of the city’s most emerging digital and graphic artists to find out how their city fuels their experimental, and often deeply Afrofuturist works, as well as the close-knit creative scene they are building within it.

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Musa Omusi
‘Change the world by creating it.’ That’s the slogan that Musa Omusi’s studio, Made With Love, abides by. The illustrator and art director co-founded the agency in 2013 as a way to collaborate with fellow creatives. Its first fruits was the streetwear label Bongosawa, which uses simple silhouettes as a canvas for bold graphics inspired by Nairobi. “The name means ‘likeminded’ – bongo (brain) sawa (equal) – we are all the same and can connect through this brand,” Omusi explains. “We began by exploring the power of graphic design applied to t-shirts. The focus is on branding and deconstructing what we already wear and building by discovery.”

The latest Bongosawa collection, Nairobi Renaissance, explores the city’s foundations and future. “By revisiting how Nairobi began, we can ask how the current generation can do things differently to change the destiny of this place. Nairobi is our muse in the context of Africa and the world, because that’s where we’re at. The world wants to know what’s going on here, so it’s a good time to develop our identity.” Omusi is currently working on a children’s colouring book and a digital magazine. His agency is also acting as a hub for nurturing newer brands including The Urban Tailor and Bonkers. “Growing up, there were no African streetwear brands that we could relate to. Now we have competition,” he says. “The idea is to support each other, stay true to our craft and keep moving forward.”

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Jebet Naava
For Jebet Naava, photography and GIF art are tools for self-love and therapy. The artist has long suffered from depression but when she picked up a camera in 2012, she found a means of expressing her feelings. “I started taking pictures of random things and then moved onto self portraiture, GIFs and more graphic images to free my mind. I’m inspired by the emotional and mental struggles we have as human beings – that intensity of life.”

It’s surprising then to discover that much of Naava’s output appears so bright and punchy. Her life-affirming, honest visuals include collaborations with music festival Blankets And Wine, musician Blinky Bill, photographer Royce Bett and stylist Bryan Emry. “Nariobi’s creative scene is so welcoming and warm. There are a lot of people coming up and we all connect. We’re trying to push Africa forward and tell our own stories,” she says. “In future, I hope to study art, create work on a big platform and exhibit in places you wouldn’t expect.”

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Jacque Njeri
Through Jacque Njeri’s imaginative eye, Kenya’s Maasai people are projected into outer space where they walk on clouds, land on the moon and navigate stars atop rockets. Her much-lauded MaaSci series typifies her Afro-centred approach to creativity. “Afrofuturism isn’t always about science and robots, it revolves around many subjects from magic to surrealism,” Njeri says. “The Maasai is the only tribe whose culture has been retained over time despite outside influences, which should be celebrated.”

Njeri studied design at the University of Nairobi and has experience in advertising. She only branched into her own digital art in 2017 with a series reimagining scenes from African stamps. More recently came Mau Mau Dream, which pictures revolutionary figures who fought against British colonial rule in Kenya, such as Dedan Kimathi. “We know he’s our hero but the only photos that exist of him are after he was captured, on trial or in hospital.” In Njeri’s image though, he is radiant and wears a crown. This month she takes part in the Other Futures sci-fi festival in Amsterdam and she’s also working on a sex education campaign. “It’s super exciting in Nairobi now but we’re only just starting. There needs to be more diversity of self-expression, and more women in graphic design. I hope to inspire women to jump into it.”

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Ojin Ngode
Ojim Ngode grew up “a curious individual”, admiring the mobile art of Nairobi’s matatu culture and devouring the pages of local comics such as Babu, Bongoman and Manywele. He first channelled his own artistic leanings through photography and now works across light installations, 3D projection mapping, GIFs and video. “During my earlier years as a designer, I worked in an ad agency which helped me realise how fixed creativity was not my type of aesthetic and so I left and started working on my own free thought processes,” Ngode explains. “My work is inspired by the people; I use my work to also inspire the people.”

He’s collaborated extensively with Muthoni Drummer Queen for her gigs and festivals as well as with the music collective EA Wave, Bongosawa and brands including Absolut. Meanwhile his latest personal project, a series of supersonic GIFs drawing on African histories and philosophies, pays tribute to legends ranging from Fela Kuti and Mbilia Bel to Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba.

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With thanks to the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme

Published on 03/02/2018