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Undefined Constructions

WRITTEN BY: Martina Olivetti & Maria Pia Bernardoni


Can you speak about your background? 

I don't really know what to say about my background. There is so much stuff like everybody else. But I can speak about my interest in photography. Throughout my schooling years, I was never interested in the idea of reading and writing, yet whenever I had the opportunity to look at images I always found myself stuck on them and I would look at as many photographs as I could. I devoured pictures. I wasn't very conscious of this fact until I took a picture. I realized I needed to build structure for learning about photography.  I realized I could use images as a tool of engaging myself, my physical environment and people around me. Photography for me is as a potential architectural channel to engage societies.

There are 2 ways of thinking about photography: as a medium and as a catalyst for engagement. The content is a metaphor that would speak in different ways.  I would like to look at images not just purely based on their appearance but to extend the thought of what they represent and build questions about society.

Let's speak about your last project “Undefined Constructions”.

When I was a student, I studied design. After university, I got a camera and I started to experiment with what photography can be and what it can do. These questions came to me much more strongly in 2005 when I was invited to be part of an exhibition in New York called “Kenyan Art”. The curator asked me why I wasn't developing a body of work, so I started asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” I never came up with answers, but I often reflected on those questions. As time went on through the years I always photographed what I thought was interesting to me. I look at these images later and try to track what I was thinking in my imagination. I realized architectural and building spaces often emerged as a subject in my work. 

Besides that, when I went to university, I studied interior design, so human spaces was a subject I was already interested in.

Three years ago, I was part of a research project where I studied the idea of artists interacting with society. I collaborated with another artist, and we exchanged ideas; I loved that it was interative. I wanted to engage in and think about a possible future for myself and what kind of subjects I wanted to include in my work. Then I got involved in other things. Since I'm an artist I don't only work with photography. I work also with videos, sound and visual art in general. During the last 3 years I was building my work very intensely. 

Through that time I had many questions about the process of building spaces and how building can represent people’s imagination and human aspiration. This became the subject that I wanted to explore much more consciously with my work. There are 3 areas I wish to explore: The first one is going to be architectural spaces and living spaces, the second one is going to be food, and the third is going to be either education or religious. I'm developing an idea called transmitted nostalgia; I don't want to focus on the meaning at the moment. For me, this transmitted nostalgia representsthe idea of people's thoughts of who they are based on their past and histories, and also based on commune and public history. I'm fascinated by seeing how people relate this nostalgia to how they feel. I am trying to see how people imagine their future based on the idea of who they think they are and how they realize their imagination.

I was invited to do some research with a sociologist in a German university. They are investing in the rise of the middle class in Nairobi. I wanted to explore the theme and engage in this project from an artistic perspective. 

It was an opportunity to me to build a structure of what  I consciously wanted to create: the idea of middle class is at the heart of this transmitted of nostalgia that I wanted to investigate. 

So, your work is always linked with images? 

Yes, these structures that I am building are like mind maps: a sheet of paper used to write on and sketch shapes of thoughts. I want to focus on the idea of the self. What is “self”? What is an extension of the self: family, religious groups, ethnic groups, cities? The relationships that we have around us end up defining the self. We exist in our environment. We are not self-contained. So when we speak about the self I always connect it to something else like a house, for example. How do I relate to the house: as a living space, as a walking space, interactive space, as a home? All these things help to identify who we are or who I am. It is a connection point. The house is a symbol of safety. When you own a house, you are proud of it. You want to talk your friends about it. It’s something that is supposed to provide future security. It has become an object that a lot of people associate directly to something they own or indirectly to someone you pay to live in. But a house as an object is just an object. I will probably express these thoughts using images, photographs and ideas of what a house could be and could mean. There are also other objects like people. You could think of people as an object and not necessarily as people. When someone is affiliated with a religious leader, political leader or family member, there is an association that people identify with someone else.  I'm in the process of building an understanding of what these objects mean and the relationship that people have with these objects. Hopefully I can start engaging this relationship using photography. 

Can you speak about your last project? 

Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of time I take photos in a very pedestrian way. I would be driving somewhere and I see something interesting and I pull out my camera; I wouldn’t stop, I just photograph it as I’m moving. One of the reasons I do that is because I feel like if I stop then I'll take a photograph that I've seen before, but when I point my camera and don't necessary look into the viewfinder but just press, I have an idea of what it might be but I'm not sure what it will look like. The image might not have all the traditional elements like composition, balance, etc. It’s interesting to see what I end up with!

The area just outside the city of Nairobi is interesting because churches are the only representation of human activity. That took me back to Kenyan history, when missionaries came to Kenya 200 years ago and the last architectural forms established were churches. Then churches became schools and then small townships started growing in that area and became sort of little towns. Churches converted human installations into spaces. I photographed lots of churches and put them together in a cluster. 

The other objects that were interesting to me were buildings and urban constructions. Buildings are popping up everywhere in the city; some of them are not functional. These buildings became symbols of urban growth in the city but you really don't know what's in there. I often say it's like pregnancy: you see the pregnancy but you don't see the baby and his character, but you know he's coming. So I did this series called undefined constructions. You can see the work here. This is really a metaphorical symbol to show that societies are growing but what is it that we are growing into. I'm not necessarily saying that we should know what it is, but I think we should be aware of the process of growing into something and hopefully we can direct what we are growing towards. We can have a common understanding of what we are growing into.

So that is a sort of background to these images. It's a series of 14 pieces. Undefined constructions for me is a process rather than an ending itself. 

What do you think about the exhibition “Making Africa” ?

I think Making Africa is an important exhibition. We had a discussion in Nairobi with the curator where she talked about this project and the big question was, “Why would you call an exhibition Making Africa”? And perhaps the purpose is to use that as a point of discussion. I think the content of the exhibition is very useful. It’s useful in the way you put “African objects” in a different context, in a formal dimension. In this exhibition I recognize the importance of ideas that people in Africa are generating, ideas that can be an inspiration to others, ideas of value, ideas of encouragement and ideas of building confidence for a population beyond themselves. 

Making Africa is an exhibition about design in a more complex definition. What's the relationship with objects that you photograph? 

I photograph a lot of different subjects, and my philosophical stand point is that you cannot truly photograph anything; you can try to represent using photograph but you cannot really capture its essence. So, the photograph becomes an object rather than the object that one is photographing. I'm thinking photographing a basic building stone. The stone is such a powerful basic unit of a whole city. This is my entry-point, the idea of this basic unit that used to build this massive monument. I want to look at this basic object and understand what is this thing. I also go to quarries to photograph the structure of quarries and lines and stones used to build a city. I photograph a series of soils, the different colours of soils that have been dug up. What is the soil that has been extracted as a material? 

Why do we say people in Kenya have a strong relationship with land? All over the world people have strong relationships with their land. I photograph an object to try to understand it because when you photograph something you always try to define it, but is it possible to define something? 

I think it's interesting to play around with this idea of trying to understand something that I will possibly never understand. Recently someone told me “James don't think too much, just do things.” Sometimes when you start doing something that's when you begin having an idea of what it is you are trying to do. 

It seems you photograph instinctively.

I don't know if my work is instinctive. I could say it's instinctive because I see something and I instantly want to photograph it. But it is a selection process. How instinctual is a selection process? Why does something attract our attention?

Maybe we can say my photography is instinctive but probably is not as instinctive as I may want to think. I don't pre-plan that much.

If you had to choose a representative image of your work, which you would you choose? 

I would probably choose an IMAGE of lights because I feel it is an attempt to capture something. Maybe I am being too philosophical. Let’s talk about simple images. Every second I look at my images they look different. That’s the danger of using an image as an icon. We are so busy that we want to identify one image as a representation of something. Is it possible to have an image that is a representation of something? I think an image is a trigger of a relationship to something. When one image is used to represent something then it could trigger one dimension of that thing. I think there is juxtaposition between how a multiplicity of images could potentially represent something and the fact that you can never photograph something, no matter how many times you try. For example, in pop culture when there is an image of a president that becomes iconic, it represents that person or country or group of people. 

I think photography is a medium where there are hundreds of years of exploring the potential beyond a photograph. 

When an image is used as an icon, I think it’s important to present other dimensions of that thing so that one person or group of people cannot claim ownership of representing something.

What is your view of education? 

Educate people to look at something differently. It’s important to channel as many versions of something as possible because there is no formula. Everyone should discover their own formula of how they relate to something.