Photographer Osborne Macharia’s role in the contemporary vision of Afrofuturism cannot be overstated. Work with notable brands like Absolut Vodka, Guinness and work on the hugely successful afro-centric Black Panther (2018) movie a testament to the quality of the creative afro-futuristic worlds he creates.
And while the Kenyan born Osborne Macharia’s work epitomizes the visual tenets of afro futurism, his career has always had a grounding in the ideology (so to speak) of Afrofuturism.
“I was self-taught in the pursuit of photography and I cannot really say there was anyone to look up to because I was one of the few Kenyans who was pushing a career in photography. There was this opinion in a way, that Kenyans cannot shoot photography and that Kenyans did not know what cameras were. That was a battle I fought on many levels. There was no market for photography in Kenya and there was no template for the photography journey for Kenyans. I along with a few others helped to create that path really.”
But Afrofuturism undoubtedly encompasses more than visuals. Afrofuturism is about redefining the tried, tested and ignorant tropes created by the West regarding the black experience and what it means to be black. For Osborne Macharia (who initially studied as an architect) the need to redefine ideas and misconceptions of “blackness” was something that he identified from an early stage in his photography career.
“When we got into projects, we did not even know there was a word called afro-futurism.” He candidly admits, “One day a journalist got in touch with us asking about afro futurism and in my mind, I was a bit offended at the time because I felt she should be asking me photography questions and not questions about some word that I did not even know what it meant. But I looked up the word and realised there is a genre and our work fell in that genre.”
He notes with a wry nostalgia his experiences when working with a Western media while trying to overcome mis-conceptions of Africa/blackness.
“I shot my first commercial shoot in 2013 for Safaricom. That was the one that opened the doors. People were not shooting with local talent at the time so my shoot made people outside Kenya realise that local people could not only shoot but shoot to an amazing standard. It was funny when the client saw my work. They were so impressed. With that work, the bar had been raised, it made the international companies take notice. They suddenly realized that Kenya has photographers who have standards just as high as their own.”
He suddenly adds another story as if slowly remembering the on-going misconceptions of Africa,
“In fact……. I shoot with a camera called Hasselblad which is like the top of the range camera. Back in about 2014 they put out a post that if people were using one their cameras within a certain range theta their images would be put up on social media. My camera was in that range, so I shared my staff and the following day the digital manager contacted me on social media and told me to check my email. He was basically asking for images of the ones I had sent. He said that they never knew that people in Kenya even knew or used their cameras. A few months later they were launching their official iPhone app and my images were on that app publicising that range of camera.”
The scope for creativity within the Afrofuturistic images is vast and flexible. Wonderful worlds can be explored. For Osborne Macharia he takes that flexibility and scope to amazing lengths charging his work with vibrancy yet a traditional edge that allows his work to be accessible to yes Africans but also to those who fall outside the African/black experience (in a sense). “People all over can relate to the projects because it brings the past and present while bringing something of the future. Ultimately base is my Kenyan culture. I basically take that every day, Kenyan culture and revamp it and take it to the world. It is a culture that exists, but I take it and make the people and the ideas larger than life.”
And in bringing the past, present and the future, he brings an understated purpose-a resolute determination.
“For me I define afro-futurism as an artistic repurpose of the post-colonial African narrative by integrating historical elements, present reality and future aspirations of people of colour through narrative, fantasy and fiction to re-write the African story. We are just taking the channel of visual imaging to discuss that afro-futurism.”
In his narrative, he manages to weave a discourse that overtly (and covertly) points to the power of black people. It is at an emotive level a discourse of positivity. And while we must be careful about overly romantacised images of being black, the counter argument could be that there have been many years of negative images that are still perpetuated to this day ergo why not go full positivity!
“There is a project we did in Nigeria with a group called the Hyena Men. They are men who domesticate hyenas. Within Nigeria they are perceived as cool dudes and they are invited to loads of different events as entertainers. From a Western perspective however, they might see these men as thugs and criminals. We were invited by one of the biggest artist funds in Nigeria and we changed the narrative from thugs to stylist protectors of the forest. So, at night they go to the forest in colourful stylish suits with the hyenas and it brought a different powerful image.”
Importantly while Osborne Macharia and his work are globally becoming well known, he has another more far reaching Afrofuturistic aim. He wants to challenge those who feel Africa’s association with creativity is minimal and to foster talent from Africa that has not been given the platform.
“Art Plus (a project I am working on) aims trying to shift from the traditional Western art galleries where you find artwork placed on the traditional white wall. We came up with our own African gallery space where it is free charge to enter. It is in public spaces and so rather than being this elitist thing it allows younger children the chance to experience the art gallery world. Within this experience you have food, you have fashion and music. The characters you see in the digital space after brought to life so people can interact with them. It’s like this 360-experience. The first one we did was huge some 3,000 people came. It showed that people from Africa are hungry for creativity. My hope is that I (as well as others) will inspire a new generation of creatives who can push that Afrofuturistic outlook.”