Osborne Macharia is a commercial and advertising digital artist from Nairobi, Kenya with a visual and narrative-driven style known as Afrofuturism. Cultural identity and fiction are the two key elements that govern his work. Osborne covers a range of topics including equality, ivory poaching, and FGM. His talents have been utilized by many brands and he’s been featured by CNN, Vogue Italia, and BBC, just to name a few.
By the looks of your Instagram, you’ve had quite the 2018. You were commissioned for Black Panther and you just finished your work for Metro Boomin, does it feel surreal to you?
Oh, yea! This year took a completely different route from what I thought it would be. But it’s been the year I actually shot less but conceptualized a lot. I’ve just been working on concept after concept. But I’m getting to the point now where I’m starting to pitch to brands rather than the other way around, where brands approach you – here’s the brief, now shoot exactly what’s in the brief. Now we are at the point where I have an idea I approach brand “X” and see how we can collaborate. So it becomes Osborne and brand “X”.
We have a situation where ideas are conceptualized outside of Africa and adapted to fit it to the continent which sometimes is a disconnect. I think if you have a concept where it’s grown from the continent itself and it’s executed in a very international standard way, I think, that’s the future that I see and want to be part of. So, I’ve had a privilege of doing that. Especially with Metro Boomin where I was given the whole freedom to do what I want. As well as now with the project, we’re having next year- it’s the same thing- it’s Osborne and Company “X” collaborating on this project. I think when I’m in that kind of space, I feel more creative. It requires a lot of me and my time to sit down and just think and conceptualize. This year, I’m drained, completely drained by conceptualizing but it’s been a good year all through.
That was the case with Black Panther that it was an open brief. They just wanted something that speaks of Wakanda. I had to sit down conceptualize, do the whole mood boarding process, have the story in place, but eventually, it played out well.
So I think we’re in this space where Africans are taking over their own art space. I think it’s such a cool space to be in.
How did you get into photography? You have a background in architecture and then took a year off and became a self-taught photographer.
It was back in 2010, I was in my fourth year of study, failed a unit, had to take a break for one year and that’s when I discovered photography through the works of Joey L. His work is all about light and mixes photojournalism images with a bit of studio lighting, all in one. I loved that. I’ve never seen anything like it before. That’s what sparked me to start following him and his work and to learn about lighting.
In 2014, we were going through a transitional phase in our field and I didn’t have work for quite a while. I ventured out on my own to find new projects and traveled to photograph the Masai. Which is a common subject, but I decided to shoot it in my own way by taking studio light on location and adding colors, textures, and vibrancy. And when I posted it on Behance – where I typically post a lot of my work- it was received so well and that’s when I realized this will be my visual style. I remember it was April or May of 2014 when I posted that on Behance, I had about 6.000 views and by the end of the year I had about 200.000 views and right now I have about 940.000 views, going to a million. It’s quite fantastic. I was able to find my visual language.
It’s a universe that knows no discrimination, no segregation, everyone matters, everyone is important.
Then in 2015, I thought of storytelling, fictional storytelling, and together with my colleague Kevo Abbra we began creating this world where we create characters to suit this world. When someone asks me, what am I doing? I say we’re actually creating our own universe, where characters reside in these spaces. It’s a universe that knows no discrimination, no segregation, everyone matters, everyone is important. It doesn’t matter your age, gender, or race. We don’t know where this world will be in the future. We don’t know if it will be a movie, book, or film. We’re still creating characters and placing them in this world. That’s what we’re actually working on. We just shot our last project on Monday, and finishing the retouching process. We launch next week and then we’re done for the year! We’re taking a break!
So when will we be able to see this project?
Actually, it will be out on December 1 as it’s World AIDS Day because it’s a project that involves HIV and orphan kids. We’re adding a different twist, something you wouldn’t expect. So keep an eye out.
You previously studied architecture, do you apply similar elements or principles in your work now?
There are two sides to that answer. One is the discipline I acquired studying architecture. Working long hours, concentrating, detailing, those are the same principles I applied to photography. The other side is that my former classmates say they see architectural elements in my work. I completely don’t see it and don’t know what it looks like. Perhaps subconsciously there’s a connection between the two.
I remember going for the shoot and my assistant and I were the only Kenyans.
Can you remember the first photo that made you think you finally made it?
It was actually in 2013 when I was commissioned for a campaign for Guinness. The commission came all the way from London. Not even the Kenyan office, but straight from London. That was when I was like “Wow, this is such an honor”. I remember going for the shoot and my assistant and I were the only Kenyans. The entire team was from the UK. I just thought “Wow, this is it!”. I think we did a good job because after that they sent in two more other projects. That was the time I knew this is what I really want to do.
Would you say that was the biggest impact on your career as of today?
I was just starting out then and had never shot anything advertising related. I had only done 2-3 projects. But that was big for me then! As of now, I’ve had bigger clients but that was the first gateway to the international world and the doors to the market finally opened. I’ll always be reminded of that moment.
Best picture of your career?
That’s a tough question! Because the thing with me is that I easily get bored with my work and after two weeks to a month later I’m looking for the next project. That type of mentality makes me want to always create. I’m always creating, always thinking what’s next.
What is your objective with Art+? What are you trying to accomplish?
Right now we are actually transitioning into a very interesting space. With Art+ we’re trying to reimagine how African gallery spaces should look. Which is different from what you have outside in Europe or the US where art is displayed on white walls in gallery spaces. That’s the western version, but what would be the African version? That’s why we take our art and bring them to public spaces and try to imagine what it would feel like to create our world in the physical space. We bring the characters that you see in the photos to life. The people can come and interact with them and take photos. We try to integrate music and fashion into the events and allow free admission.
We’ve been privileged to have three events so far. The last one we had we were anticipating 1.000 people and over two days we had 4.000 attend. The previous event we did at Alliance Francais which is a French cultural center that gave us space. When we were planning we told the lady in charge to expect a lot of people at the opening. Her response was “No, every time we have art events, the maximum we have are 40 people. So we’ll give you two security guards and enough food for that day.” To her surprise, 3.000 people showed up. The place was so full you weren’t able to move from one end to the other. The doors had to be shut at a certain point and it was one in one out. It was that packed! That brought us a lot of people, especially people in Nairobi, that wanted a different kind of experience. That’s our next phase, we create the projects and later on, we do these events and bring the characters into the next space.
I know you’re mostly focused on the creative space, but is there a place, person or something you’re dreaming of photographing?
Um, right now the thing is, is our focus is brand collaboration and the Art+ events. But getting to work with pop celebrities, like Beyonce or Jay-Z would be such a cool space to be in.
Which 3 tools would you not be able to work without?
I would say my camera, lights, and iMac for editing. My camera has proven to be one of the key elements within my workflow. I shoot on a Hasselblad medium format. I can’t shoot without lighting. It wouldn’t be me without the lighting. Once I have those three key elements I’m ok, I’m set. I don’t need anything else.
I think the part I enjoy the most is cracking that idea and once that happens, everything flows and falls into place so easily.
It’s evident in your photos you’re in charge of everything from coming up with the ideas, photographing, then managing post-production, is there a specific part of the process you enjoy or dislike the most?
I’ve gotten into a workflow where about 50% of the job is just pre-production, the concept and getting the settings right. Another 20% is shooting and 30% is post-production. A lot of it has to be in the concept and in the story. Creating the characters and breaking it down and how they look, how their hair will be, what they’ll wear. I think the part I enjoy the most is cracking that idea and once that happens, everything flows and falls into place so easily. But the story is everything.
You seem to have a team of dedicated members?
I’ve had such a nice team that I’ve been able to work with for the last 4-5 years who get it. Whenever you interpret ideas to them, they always click and they’re always willing to go a step further. I think having the right team in place has played a huge role. I have a dedicated team of assistants and people who just want to help out. We’re getting to the point now whenever we’re doing these art events, people just want to volunteer and not even get paid, just to be part of the experience, just to be part of that space, where both creativity and energy are flowing.
Can you tell me a bit about your work for the Black Panther film? You obviously had a lot of flexibility in the creative details, what brings out this creative juice? And how do you bring to life what’s in your mind to reality?
I found a workflow that works specifically for my own personal projects that are replicated in everything I do. There’s a certain way of thinking that I have, that will always take charge whenever I have to think of a project.
With Black Panther, I was given a brief at the end of December and the project had to be delivered mid-January. I remember throughout Christmas I wasn’t resting, I was just thinking “How do I crack this idea? How do I crack this idea?” Then towards the end of December, I finally got the idea! I shared it with the PR company that contacted me for that job. They just said, “This sounds fantastic, go ahead!” Then we broke off for Christmas and New Years, then January 5, we were on the ground working! They loved it, they loved it so much they put it as the centerpiece of one of the biggest cinemas in London. It was amazing, it was a win for us! We felt we put in so much time and energy and effort, and that opened other doors eventually.
I’m getting tired of the negative stereotypes we receive.
Africa tends to be portrayed more negatively through the lens of other photographers. Do you have a sense of responsibility to portray Africa in a more positive light?
Definitely! I’m getting tired of the negative stereotypes we receive. There is so much beauty we can offer. My wife tells me often “Osborne, I think the reason why you do what you do, is because you get bored of seeing the same old stuff, over and over again!”. And I think that’s become a part of me. I easily get bored of seeing the same negative stereotypes or the same stuff portrayed the same way, over and over again. I don’t think I’m the only one that feels the same. A lot of young Kenyans and Africans know and want to change the perspective. They want to own their own identity. One that’s totally independent of what western culture has to offer. We’re still in this transition phase where people are trying to discover it but I think we are at the point that we just need to be given our own space to explore and find out what exactly is our identity.
You’ve been named the Prince of Afrofuturism and have been ahead of this movement, was this triggered through the same sentiment of wanting to portray Africa in a positive light?
I always tell people when I started this journey, I didn’t even know what Afrofuturism was. Until one day, my colleague and I were doing an interview for CNN and they asked us to talk about Afrofuturism. And in my head, I was like “Uh, does she know I’m a photographer?! I’m not a politician. I don’t know what the future of Africa has to offer.” It was later on when I went to do the research that I found Afrofuturism is so wide. My work somehow falls within that genre and that somehow has been my identity ever since. I think it’s gotten to a point it’s a bit hard for people to separate the term and the meaning behind Afrofuturism and my work. I think that’s how the whole association with me and Afrofuturism has become. I was actually really shocked.
The other day I was taking part in a magazine by Foam Museum in Amsterdam where I showcased my images. Someone had written an article about Afrofuturism and my work. It was by Ytasha Womack and I was shocked to find out it was her because she’s a prominent figure in the movement. I was like “Ytasha knows who I am!” I wrote to her to say thank you for such a nice article and that it came out great. We’ve been Instagram friends ever since. So knowing people are out there are seeing your work and love what you’re doing, is quite something beautiful.
I was shocked again this year when I was on Wikipedia going through Afrofuturism. I saw all these people, artists, musicians like Kendrick Lamar and my name was there! I was shocked! If this is it, then I’ll continue riding this wave and keep doing what I’m doing.
It amplified my belief that if you do something good, it will be appreciated across the world.
Your Kenyan roots are embedded in a lot of your work, has there been a challenge of creative differences when working with international clients?
Oh, yea! Definitely! Sometimes you try to explain an idea and because of cultural difference, people don’t get it exactly. However, for example, if you explain the idea to a Kenyan, they would get right away because it’s part of their DNA and culture. You know it, you feel it, you grew up with it. But then you go explain it to someone outside, and it takes a lot of time to get used to it and I think that’s the reason why I really insist on creating decks. Because you can visually guide someone through the process of what you have in mind and people eventually get it. So definitely cultural barriers will always be there. As much as I always struggle with understanding what happens in the west, I think it’s the same for how people in the west find it hard to understand what we’re doing here. I think the challenge is always there across the board, but it’s finding a way to make people understand. That’s why when I’m explaining my projects to clients, I always try to simplify it into a language where everyone can understand.
Whenever I have exhibitions, especially outside, whether it be Dubai, Switzerland, USA…people across all race, age, gender understand my work. It always seems to resonate with people across the board. And it’s just a funny thing! Because you wouldn’t expect it to resonate with everyone, but just Africans.
I did an exhibition in Dubai that displayed three different projects on women. The women connected with the grannies and really felt it! And for me, it amplified my belief that if you do something good, it will be appreciated across the world. So that’s why I continue to simplify my stories, making them easy to understand and communicating a certain message. I find people understand it across the board.
Can you talk about your Magadi project? What is your intent behind this specific story?
All that was fictional! It was inspired by my mom who at that time was working for an NGO and was advocating for the end of FGM. I remember when I told her I had this idea, she told me “Please do it! I’ve been wanting to see how to get you on board to tackle some of these issues and since you’re doing it, please do it!” My mom was fully on board, so that’s the story behind it.
The women do not exist but such programs do. Especially in certain communities where women are given alternative lifestyles or alternative sources of income, besides practicing FGM. So we just took that idea and made it grand or larger than life.
Where do you currently find good photography?
I’m a sucker for print. Instagram definitely. Behance has been quite a good portal. Interesting enough, there’s a lot of good photography on Pinterest and that’s been one of my research avenues. So I think as long as we have access to the internet, we should be ok to feel inspired and get inspired.
And what about role models?
I’ve had so many influences. I’ve had Joey L., Mark Zibert, Carlos Serrao, and Marco Grob. There’s a whole list of people I could mention. Everyone that I’ve mentioned has their own specific style and the style is so distinct where sometimes when you see a piece of work you can just tell this is from that person and they’ve owned it. That’s why I always tell people you have to find your own style and own it. Then people will commission you because of your style and it becomes your signature. People anywhere in the world will see a piece of your work and say this is “Osborne”. So style for me is key.
I always tell people everything that is good takes time.
Best piece of advice received and any advice you’d share to young shots out there that are starting in the world of photography?
The best advice I got in 2017/2018 is to respect the process. That’s something that stuck with me and hit me hard because I work in an industry where there’s a culture of “instant turnovers”. For example, if we have an idea, they will need it tomorrow. Things don’t always go well that way. When something is produced in that kind of attitude, the work becomes bad. It’s ugly. I always tell people everything that is good takes time.
That’s why anything in the west or outside, people take weeks to plan. But here in Kenya, we just want things tomorrow and it never works that way. It says a lot even in the work we produce. In the advertising industry, we’re so behind compared to what the world is doing. We still have to give up on the attitude that we need this tomorrow, we needed this yesterday. So I’ve learned to always respect the process and that’s the same language and attitude I have with young creatives. To learn and respect the process.
Right now, it’s just time to rest!