Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann talks to Rocca Gutteridge, British Council’s head of Arts East Africa, about her artistic practice and residency at Turner Contemporary

Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann is a filmmaker and photographer based in Nairobi, whose work is often inspired by children, women, nature and spirituality. A fellow of RAW Académie 2016, Ndisi-Herrmann’s visual poem Seeds won the Ecumenical Jury Award at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 2017. She has exhibited at the Goethe Institut Nairobi (2016), The National Museum of Kenya (2013), and in collaboration with The Sundance Institute at MoCADA New York (2011). Her feature-length documentary, New Moon, is in post-production. Here we catch up with the artist after her recent residency at Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK.

Describe your upbringing.
My mum is Kenyan and my father is German. Both cultures are a positive influence on me. I have a methodological and loose way of doing things. So, sometimes I’m on time and sometimes I’m late! From my father’s side, I get detail and sensitivity. My mum and I do everything with colour and flare. I was an only child until I was ten. I built a deep inner world and need to be alone a lot. Nevertheless, I am grateful my sister came along; she opened me up to being more spontaneous.

How did your love of film begin?
I grew up with an interest in art but never believed I was any good. Let’s just say I had a few art teachers who didn’t encourage me, so I studied communications, and then boy, did I drop out! At this point, I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to express myself. I loved to paint, but it wasn’t my vehicle. I loved writing, but it wasn’t enough. So my dad sat me down with a flip board and asked “What do you like doing? What are you good at?” What came out of it was my desire to communicate that we, humans, are all the same. Film is multi-sensory; you’re able to feel what the character feels. I love that.

What drives you to make films?
Through experiencing someone’s journey, I believe we can promote compassion and push emotional evolution. My aim is to create work that is healing, so that we can become more aware of the spiritual nature in us all. We are inundated with images of beauty everywhere. We are all artists on Instagram. But all this touches our minds, not our hearts. We need more works that give us solace and act like a balm to our heart. That’s what I want, to make people aware of the divinity that is in and around us. When making a film, I become a vessel; an instrument for the higher power. When I shoot, it’s as if a strong, magical force descends and takes over. Most of my current works stem from the question; where do we come from? What memories live in our blood? What histories are held in our body?

Tell us about Seeds.
Seeds is a four-minute film. It’s about two siblings that are only together for six days. By talking about their feelings of loss, and also of togetherness, the film addresses macro issues of death and life. Through this film I explored an interest in yin and yang. It made me think about how in order to know bad you need to know good; in order to know sadness you have to know joy. But how do we ever know things will even out? How do we know if we will ever find solace?

How have you navigated the film industry?
There was a time, in order to get into the industry, I worked for free or very little. Now I am in a different stage of my career. I works for others and myself. When I am hired to create work for someone, I make sure to honour their decision to come to me. I also remember that it’s possible to say the same thing through tuning my voice to who I’m saying it to.

Docubox, a documentary film fund and hub, has been very supportive on my feature-length documentary, New Moon. I also appreciate my new relationship with the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme. Beyond that, I find creating and working in Kenya extremely isolating. I would like to have more of a creative network, so that’s something to work on.

You’ve just returned from the UK – what were you up to?
First I came to film a visual poem for Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate and then I returned to see the exhibition of my work and to embark on video works. This involved doing a creative writing workshop with a group of young people on what the sea means to them. I then shot some visual material to accompany their words. The visual poem will be exhibited at Turner Contemporary at the end of 2017. This make up one of three films I have made about the Sea.

I also shot a music video with an amazing lady called Desta, who I met through social media. She’s similar to me in that she’s talented but the world hasn’t given her the financial or creative recognition yet. It was an intense exchange, I stayed with her and we shot the video very simply in her house. You know, I’ve worked with such small budgets in the last few years, I know how to create something beautiful out of nothing. Without this, I wouldn’t have found my style so freely.

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Published on 19/07/2017