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A master at creating alternate black universes

Q&A with Osborne Macharia on his role in the Vodacom Durban July Red campaign, creative freedom, Afro-futurism, collaboration and so much more

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By Gugulethu Mkhabela | July 3, 2019 | Design

Maestro photographer.  Afro-futurism warrior. Prolific and legit, digital  artist. This is what comes to mind when thinking of the talent that is Kenyan commercial photographer, Osborne Macharia.

The self-taught photographer has made a name for himself with his impressive portfolio having worked on renowned local and international brands, campaigns, films and TV shows. This includes the unforgettable artwork for the  Black Panther  movie and shooting the key  artwork for Oprah and renowned director, Ava Duvernay’s hit American Drama series,  Queen Suga r.

He recently undertook the awe-inspiring Vodacom Red campaign which involved working with designers  Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa Africa,  Sindiso Khumalo, and Rina Chunga Kutuma of Rich Factory to create material that brings to life the Afro-futurism-inspired theme for this year’s Vodacom Durban July— Under the African Stars.

Macharia an architecture graduate, is one of the most vocal champions of Afro-futurism which he describes as ‘an artistic re-purpose of the post-Colonial African narrative by combining historical elements, present culture and the future aspirations of people of colour, and using narrative, fiction and fantasy to create these universes that you wouldn’t normally see.’

He tell us about his role in the Vodacom Durban July Red campaign, the creative freedom he had with the project, Afro-futurism, Africans uniting and  collaborating and much more.

Tell us about your role in the VDJ 2019 campaign and the first thought/vision that came to mind when you got the Afro-futurism-inspired brief and theme, ‘Stars of Africa’?

It was both a feeling of excitement as well as a feeling of responsibility to be tasked to shape the visual language for such a historic and significant event. I remember one of the first images that came to mind was that of an open field with a starry night sky. It’s interesting to see that despite the revisions we did on the concept that aspect stayed on to the very end.

What is your creative/design process?

The 'Research Phase' is one of the uncompromisable stages in my creative process. This stage helps in coming up with the story (story is always king for me). At times I do zone out and day dream, let the mind wonder and see what it comes back with. Once I feel I have the right story and context then I start working on a Concept Deck / Case Deck which i’ll share with my team (the client in this case being Vodacom). The deck will try give a better understanding of what I want to achieve. The deck also helps my team (in this case Kevo Abbra my stylist) get a better idea of what is expected but also allows him to give his own creative interpretation of the styling, accessories and head pieces. Once everything is approved, we begin the prep work and wait to shoot. 

The terms 'creative'/creative entrepreneur' gets thrown around a lot, a buzzword of sorts - what does this mean to you and do you define yourself as such?

I’m honestly not into titles and in as much as I do a lot of things, I just stick to being called a Photographer and let the work speak for itself. I see a creative entrepreneur as someone who uses their creative skills and unique style to curve out a niche for themselves and their platform to create a business of their own that’s equally sustainable.

You're very passionate about rewriting and shifting the African narrative and have become one of the most vocal and celebrated champions of Afro-futurism. Take us back to where it all started—the moment you found your 'voice'  and knew that this is what you are meant to do?

The idea to experiment with fictional narratives came about in 2014. For some reason I managed to convince Kevo Abbra to follow me on this crazy journey and we created our first body of work called Macicio that re-packaged the story of our freedom fighters.

We had no clue that it would gain much attention as it did. We decided that it would be the path we would follow. At this time we had no clue that there was even a word called Afro-futurism until one day we were doing an interview for CNN and we were asked to talk about the subject.

That’s when we found out that what we had been doing all along was part of a bigger global movement. I still say that I’m learning what Afro-futurism means. It’s such a broad topic and I think we are barely scratching the surface.

Who and what inspires you?

I’m inspired by a lot of things. I think being a generally quiet person makes me observe a lot within my surroundings and find gems in everyday people or situations. When growing up I was really fascinated by Mad Max and I think this had an effect on me creating alternative worlds. Currently I’m inspired by a couple of commercial photographers who’s lighting and compositing is brilliant. These are Marcus Eriksson, Carlos Serao, Marco Grobb to just to name a few. I’m also inspired by the kind of brands they have in their portfolios.


What are your views on African artist/designers from the continent knowing and celebrating each other's work and more importantly, collaborating?

I think it's important and necessary that we collaborate and celebrate each other’s work as fellow creatives on the continent. As a creative you need to evolve your craft and that can only happen when you open your doors to other skilled creatives with the same vision, work ethic and vibe as yourself, and explore what magic can come out of it. Some of these collaborations begin from working on personal projects and it's the same people you end up collaborating with on bigger paying jobs.


Describe the overall experience of this particular campaign while collaborating with equally remarkable and prolific creatives (Laduma Ngxokolo, Sindiso Khumalo and Rina Chunga Kutuma) has been, and on that note, what is your dream collaboration or project?

In as much as they are brilliant designers, they also have great personalities on set. It was great to see their distinct unique designer styles merge with my visual aesthetics and to see the final outcome. All designers were a charm to work with and I hope there will be more of such collaborations to come. As for my dream collaboration I would say working with Beyonce, Jay-Z and Virgil Abloh (not necessarily in that order).


Some would argue that the mind-blowing Kipiriri 4 is your most notable work, please tell us which project is close to your heart (I'm sure they all are), but the one that you believe is your magnum opus?

That’s always a tough question to answer as I easily get bored of my last project and seek the 'high' from the next project. I would say one of my most remarkable works is  No Touch Am. The complexity and challenges behind the shoot that took place in Nigeria is what make it special. Never did I imagine I would be photographing the real 'Hyena Men of Nigeria’. Sometimes when I go through the body of work, I wonder how we even managed to pull it off. Hopefully one of these days I’ll get to narrow in on my favourite.

Images: Osborne Macharia

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