Mysterious. Moody. Magical. The other-worldly work of Kenyan-based artist Jim Chuchu is both culturally-powerful and intriguing. In his series titled “Pagans,” he takes us back in time in search of his ancestors’ past. We got the chance to ask him a few questions about his work:
What’s the story behind Pagans?
“Pagans was the result of my curiosity about pre-colonial mysticism in Africa.
There has been a widespread erasure of pre-colonial religious practice in Africa,
and labeling of all such practice as backward. Most other cultures have a very
vivid bank of imagery and stories about their religious icons – like the statue of
Buddha, omnipresent in every spa even here, or the appearance of Norse gods
in popular film. It’s very difficult to find such imagery or literature about African
pre-Christian and pre-Islam deities.
Thus, Pagans was an exercise in reconstructing portraits of these erased-to-oblivion
deities by imagining future-past anonymous African deities and forgotten religious
Where do you get your inspiration?
I get my inspiration from all over – old and new music, short films, graphic
novels and comics, fiction; living in this great, difficult city of Nairobi, and my
colleagues at the NEST who are always seeing, talking about and listening
to interesting things. Also, where would I be without the internet? Record
shops and libraries are dead, bookstores are sparse and getting rid of fiction
to make room for self-help books, and cinemas only show big-budget Hollywood
Describe your process. Film / digital? Favorite cameras?
I work with digital photography as a foundation for my digital composites. I then
create additional textures and elements by creating illustrations and paintings
(watercolor, ink, charcoal, pencil on paper) which I then scan and composite with
the foundation photographs.
My favorite camera is now the Canon 5D Mark III, which I recently began using
after years and years of shooting with my trusty Nikon D90. I’d love to work with
film, but the prospect of having to import equipment and regular supplies is
daunting (custom duties are hefty here in Nairobi).
You’re born and raised in Kenya – how would you describe the art scene
there? How has it influenced your own art?
The art scene in Nairobi has become much more vibrant since the early 2000s
when I started out and East Africa was described as a ‘cultural wasteland’.
There’s now hordes of young people experimenting with photography and all
kinds of digital art, music, fashion and performance arts. There is a renewed
interest in our past arts and culture movements – which is causing all kinds
of interesting archival remixing and retro nostalgia.
However, the thing that influences me about Kenya – more than the art scene –
is the history of Kenya, the culture of our cities and our people, our current
struggles in defining our present and relating with our past. We are a society in
flux, and it’s an exciting and important time to be creating work that mirrors
Peek into the past:
Interview and photos used with permission from the artist.