Parlance: Velma Rosai

Velma Rosai by Daniel Obasi
 
 

The artist expanding the narrative of Black womanhood, Kenyan cultural production and postcolonial African identity.

 




photography Daniel Obasi

words Chinasa Chukwu

 

 

Perhaps no time in recent history has been as fraught with tensions regarding identity and national representations as the present. As media industries that trade particularly in the visual and thus representation itself, the collective industries of art, photography, fashion and music are a microcosm of those tensions. One need only look at the controversies of the New York Times and the Nairobi attacks, where the bodies of victims were graphically depicted, or the Gucci or Prada blackface scandals to see them manifested. In the midst of these conversations and the often inherent inequality in representation in these fields, the question of ‘Blackness’ and the nuances of its depiction often arises. As an artist sitting at the intersection of these topics, it is inevitable that Rosai’s work considers them all.

THE ARTIST AS MUSE

The first of Rosai’s work to catch my eye was The Soul is a Silent Song, a photography series exploring the mysticism and ritualistic energy of traditional African masks. The series speaks to an artist who shares an intimacy with her tools and who is able to wield the lens as a microscope. In her hands, the camera becomes a questioning observer, the mouthpiece of the viewer, prodding the subject on their behalf. The resulting assumption is that the artist herself requires some level of obscurity to be effective.

However, further research into Rosai unveils a body of work in which she is the subject of her artistic explorations. With no website or collective portfolio, most of Rosai’s work is hosted on her social media platforms. Similar in mood to Seydou Keita, her portraits exist in a muted palette made up of tones of browns, oranges and soft whites. At first glance one is confronted with images of the artist carelessly strewn amongst those of locations she has visited. It is only upon closer inspection, a pulling aside of the veil, that a pattern emerges and her artistry becomes clear.

Her subjecthood is deliberate and her self-portraits are in fact part of a multi-layered artistic endeavour. Speaking about the complexity of artistry as a Black African woman in a landscape that fetishises both Black and African women, she makes it clear that placing herself in front of the camera is an intentional reclamation of self and rejection of the societal exploitation of Black women. The “invocations” as Rosai refers to them are part of her larger aim to contribute to and expand conversations of Black womanhood on both a personal and societal level. “I am interested in the abstract way of presenting myself as a darker complexioned Black woman while reflecting on the fact that I took a long time to see myself as beautiful”. She describes the self-portraits as an act of “coming into” her own.

 
Velma Rosai by Daniel Obasi
 

With herself as muse, it is no surprise that her work is also largely introspective. The portraits are examinations of her “internal visions” and journeys in different environments. Though Rosai is based in Kenya, her work encompasses photography taken in myriad locations ranging from Berlin to Tokyo. By centering herself and by extension that unsmiling, frank and occasionally unsettling stare, she reaffirms her existence in these spaces and her experiences within them.

One might be forgiven for thinking that centering herself might place restrictions on the artist, however for Rosai it has the opposite effect. While she notes that her work “is in some capacity an examination of myself” she also views herself as the “constant author” which gives her the freedom to document what inspires her as it inspires her, whether it be a “memory or a song”, culminating in a body of work that is at once “part autobiographical and part curatorial”. This freedom has meant a transition from creative self doubt to confidence. Rosai emphasises that her feelings of imposter syndrome, feelings often experienced by artists at the beginning of their creative output, have abated and been replaced by a confidence that now allows her to “fully stand behind [her] work”.

ON ACTIVISM AND INDUSTRY

For a few years, it was impossible to open a fashion magazine or an art journal without coming across an article on the resurgence of African art, fashion or music and its growing popularity. Publications like Vogue and the Financial Times declared Africa the next creative frontier. Nevertheless, despite its willingness to give media coverage to African artists and their work, the Western art world and creative industries, where most of the capital is located, remain largely impenetrable for the majority of creatives.


“I am interested in the abstract way of presenting myself as a darker complexioned Black woman.”


Rosai is aware of this roadblock and the complications of growing xenophobia and isolationism worldwide, particularly for African creatives. “With today’s sense of nationalism, it’s just so dignity stripping going through the processes of getting long term stay permits. Who wants to go through that?”

Though she states emphatically “my work is nostalgia”, highlighting that her inspirations are predominantly from her parents’ old photographs and vintage African cinema, Rosai’s creative output is by no means singular. She is cautious of this changing socio-political climate, especially as it relates to African creatives, and is committed to not only furthering the dialogue around established artists and their work but also to champion the voices of other creative innovators. Asked about work, photographic and otherwise, in which she is not the subject, she clarifies “it’s about more expansive work”.

 
 

Thrift Social is an example of that more expansive work. Founded in 2015 by Rosai and her brother Oliver Asike, the annual event is a platform dedicated to creativity and the exploration of art, music and fashion while putting a spotlight on innovators in the Nairobi creative industry. Now four years old, the event series is a fixture on the schedule for Nairobi Fashion week and has hosted some of the continent’s most exciting emerging artists such as Burna Boy and Santi.

Rosai describes the roles of activist and artist as intertwined, elucidating her position by sending me a quote ‘Activism moves the material world, while Art moves the heart, body and soul. Artistic Activism is a practice aimed at generating emotionally resonant experiences that lead to measurable shifts in power’.

CRAFTING A NARRATIVE

While Rosai’s creative insight is clearly unlimited by medium, there is an underlying thread of community in her work. Also co-founded with her brother, 2manysiblings is as much a clothing line as it is an exercise in promoting artistic cultural production. As with her other projects she was incentivised to create the brand as a way of fixing a “representation inequality” in the dialogue of African fashion. “There wasn’t really an East African presence and reference on the contemporary creative scene, it was either West or South Africa. We saw a glitch that needed our voice”. The brand which aims to ‘curate transitional contemporary African narratives’ has already received industry approval. Having collaborated with ASOS on a capsule Spring Summer 2018 collection, it was lauded by Teen Vogue as the definition of ‘cultural appreciation’ for its integration of Kenyan inspirations alongside responsible production values…

 

 


Read the rest of the interview in POSTSCRIPT Issue 2.