In his personal projects, Osborne Macharia tells stories and sees beauty where most wouldn’t. With Mengo, his latest project, he reimagines a minority group in the most badass of ways.
The invite said 9 am but I am late, as always. In a moment of absent-mindedness, I missed my turn and drove straight into traffic. Its 10:30 when I finally get there, and my phone is still quiet.
I bump into Osborne Macharia at the entrance of ProKraft Africa, the talent management agency that runs the space where today’s shoot is happening. He’s on the phone so I say a quick hi and turn right into the gallery space.
The wall to my right has three of Thandiwe Muriu’s images. Her subjects are dark and powerful; it almost feels as if they are trapped in the canvas. The play in the lighting and contrast, and the boldness of their complexion, makes it feel as if you can feel their skin. “Every person is a masterpiece with beauty that should be carried with boldness, confidence and pride,” the accompanying plaque says.
Fighting for space with them are several other prints featuring models living with albinism. They are surreal. They are unusual. Even in a space like this where Kenya’s top photographers are omnipresent, this particular work sees a marginalised people differently. It’s Osborne’s work.
I’ve always wanted to curate one of Osborne’s personal projects. After one particularly unnerving one, I nudged him to tell me when he was shooting another. And he did. So on the second last day of June, I made my way to the shooting of Mengo.
From materials he sends me two weeks before, the idea is to dress four models as fighters in an underground fight club called Mengo. It’s unsettling, his choice of subjects. As I read the brief, I Google whether it’s insensitive to call people living with dwarfism ‘dwarfs’. I know ‘midgets’ is offensive, even from its etymology. ‘Little People’ is used mostly within the community. But I’m not sure about dwarfs, and as it turns out, neither is the internet. I later overhear Joachim Mwangi, the chairman of the Short Stature Society of Kenya, say that they prefer “people of short stature.”
My goals here are multiple. I want to draft the text to accompany the images; I want to curate the process; and I want to just hang around and see the madness that gives the world such brilliant work. There are easily 30 other people in the room: stylists, make-up artists, prop crew, tailors, and a sketch artist. Then there are those, like me, who are here to gawk. Photographers, writers, and art enthusiasts eager to see how this fusion of photography and fiction happens.
Osborne doesn’t look unnerved by his audience. A burly man who almost always wears shorts and t-shirt (its 19 degrees outside), he listens keenly to questions and answers calmly.
Nothing much happens for what seems like the whole day. Nothing here meaning that no one touches a camera. Or to be specific, the camera.
Osborne’s process can be frustrating to the casual observer. For him, the image is barely half the job. It’s what you do before and after that gives the image meaning, he offers later.
So more than half the day is spent on make-up, as the models sit and talk, and everyone else just looks busy. Osborne is calm; he’s always calm. Photo shoots aren’t meant to be like this. Where is the high pressure and the madness of a photographer who needs to finish the project?
For what seems like a whole day, Sheetal Patel, the special effects and make-up artist, works on the models. Her work is masterful, an art in itself, and before long she too has an unofficial audience.
Jeremy “Mrefu” steps in front of the camera. He has a prominent scar running across his right cheek. He looks like he has been battered in many a fight, but he has triumphed. Heavily-built and sporting a skull on his stomach, he stares into the distance like a real champ.
In front of him, Osborne drags a maroon towel, lies on it, and balances the Hasselblad camera in his hands.
Within three minutes, he’s done. I can’t believe it, neither can Jeremy. But Osborne is actually done and he’s ready for the next model, Sonko, as Jeremy switches costume and jumps in front of the camera again.?
Sonko is proper comedy. He spots a mohawk and there’s an infectious happiness about him, one that makes even his session feel like it has gone even faster. After Sonko, Mang’alitos steps infront of the camera, with his lantern and his grim face. He’s quiet and focused, even in person. He’s burly, and his story writes itself in my head as he stands there.
Dudu’s is the last model of the day. She has a cold which bugs her the whole day but she wants to do this. She’s the one who tells me that she doesn’t know why her friends call her Dudu’s (they all chose their names for the project). As we sit on a couch facing the shoot, we talk about Osborne and his crazy projects. This is good, she tells me, because people like us aren’t seen as being worthy of models everyday.
Her character is total badassery. She looks like she’s ready to rain pain on her opponents. Her stance is powerful, with her long-flowing natural hair making her look either unaware of how it can be used against her in the ring, or like she doesn’t care. In the story, she has the coolest weapon, a heat-seeking fare (slingshot).
“The image is a composite,” he tells me later as we wrap up the day, more than 10 hours since I got there.
He doesn’t need to click a thousand times to find the right image. He only needs one. For most models this can be frustrating especially given how elaborate the costumes and makeup for Osborne’s projects are. It doesn’t feel, until you see the end result, like a day’s worth of work.
Osborne’s co-creator is Kevo Abbra. Abbra describes himself as many things, but at the top of the list is prop-master, talent scout, fashion stylist and producer. While he does many things on set, perhaps his most challenging work is scouting for talent.
The idea for Mengo first came up early last year. “Mengo is from that word we used as kids “twende tukamengo” which meant “twende tukapigane”, Abbra says when I ask. It immediately reminds me of the legend of Makmende and how Just a Band resurrected a childhood hero into an urban culture.
Even to these two driven creatives, Mengo seemed impossible. Not many people know many people living with dwarfism. As the year aged, they came up with and shot different projects.
There was Macicio, a project about a group of opticians embedded in the Mau Mau. Then there was Namanga, for which Osborne “took the studio setting to the bush.” Then there was Afro-Juba. After that was Chokosh which involved models who were homeless, and shot them in a different light. There was Melanin-0, a project about how people with albinism are held back in the world by their lack of melanin.
There was Nyanyes, perhaps the first to go properly viral. A group of globe-trotting former government honchos, now aging grandmothers. Because it broke beyond the boundaries through which the previous project had been absorbed and translated, most of Osborne’s new audiences had trouble realizing it was entirely fictional.
Then there was Kabangu, the breakout star. Kabangu reimagines a group of male models who are actually guardsmen by day, as hip hop grandpas by night. It was powerful, and rich in color. It was shared by Snoop Dog and other hip hop stars.
“After Kabangu we realized we just had to do Mengo,” Abra adds. The idea had refused to go away, despite expending all this time, energy and money rolling out other projects.
So he begun the hard work of finding talent for the shoot.
Short of sending out a cast call and exposing the project long before it had even come together, Abbra had very few choices. He resorted to old school talent scouting, making the mental note to approach the first person of short stature he saw.
That happened to be Julie (Dudu’s) on the streets of Nairobi.
Being a minority and a woman in Nairobi must already be hard without strange men stopping you to tell you of crazy projects. But Abbra intimates that the work of a talent scout isn’t meant to be easy. Julie wasn’t snobbish, but she was alarmed. So she quickly gave him her number and left.
Over the phone, and in a short meeting, Abbra explained what they wanted to achieve. Julie loved it. But then he had an additional ask, would she happen to know other people living with dwarfism? In fact she did, she said, but to get to them he would have to sit with Joachim Mwangi, the president of their association.
The meeting between Abra and Mwangi yielded far more than he could have hoped for. Mengo was an idea that sold itself, mostly, because it was so eccentric. It re-imagines a minority group that wouldn’t ordinarily make the cut for models for photo shoots. Even further, it lionizes them in that visceral environment of violence as spectator sport. Our modern sensibilities may abhor the implied violence but our primal instincts understand it.
And then of course, with Game of Thrones having a dwarf as its central character, there’s are new social spaces to talk about the condition. Tyrion is a brilliant, manipulative survivor who has gone through more than almost anyone in the GoT universe. Yet he is likeable and easily every fan’s hero. There’s that underlying point; that people of short stature are exactly that, people.
A constant question is what the deeper thematic elements of Osborne’s work are. Is it that, by picking ignored minorities as his subjects, he is trying to highlight their unseen beauty? Or is he, like Thandiwe, trying to say that everyone is a story, a masterpiece?
“My work this far is governed by 3 principles: identity, culture and fiction,” Osborne often says. The two problematic principles here are identity and culture. With a loose definition of what a Kenyan identity is, and with how controversial culture as a concept is to grasp in our parlance, the mind of the forward-looking artist has to be eccentric and revolutionary. It is tapping into the primary role of an artist in society: as a cultural intermediary.
With Mengo, Osborne and Abra are rethinking how we see a minority group that suffers from a lifelong condition. It was the same thing with the project with people living with albinism. The subjects are dressed in clothes denoting different professions: a surgeon, a cop, a pilot. Since the theme of the exhibition for which the project was done was “Black”, Osborne chose subjects who should ideally have black skin but don’t. And that absence of a pigment is used to hold them back from pursuing whatever they want to do in life.
The underlying point is that there is no “normal” among people, and no “abnormal.”
“The only condition I have for my projects is that they have to have a story,” Osborne explains. “Narratives,” he adds, “all these projects are about narratives. Retelling the Kenyan, and by extension the African story. First for ourselves, before the outside world.” So each image is by itself a small chapter in this plan, brought together by elaborate pre- and post-production work which complement the photograph itself. Then they are woven together to tell a story.
Interpretations of Osborne’s work range from his evolving a new sub-genre to him finding beauty where very few other people do. One American interview said his work is “Afro-futurism,” a cagey description, but perhaps one of the most concise to date. Another described it as “”A mixture of CGI and photography/photography with a painted effect bordering on illustration.” Photography and story marry to create a thought-provoking image.
What’s woven in Mengo, for example, is a story of an underground fight club where people who are considered abnormal, do things we would associate with “normal” people. They tap into a visceral desire for pain and fame because they are human beings before they are people classified by a condition they didn’t choose. So Dudu’s, Mangalitos, Mrefu and Sonko are placed in an old abandoned building that’s falling apart, champions of a fictional universe.
From identity then, even the angle Osborne uses makes his subjects look larger than life. You have to keep reminding yourself that these are people who are less than 140cm tall, because they don’t look like it. They look simply badass. But we are tempted, by our sensibilities, to reduce them to something else.
For culture, it stokes a conversation around how we see people of short stature. When you hear them talk about their challenges, and you watch some of Tyrion’s soliloquies, you realise that because we don’t see them as “normal” people, we don’t see the ways in which we hurt them. It’s in the words we use, the way we interact with them, and how we modify our spaces to make it easier for them to live, work and play. Imagine an adult being carried, unwillingly, by a kange into a matatu. Or even how hard it is to find love, and acceptance.
Osborne’s choice of subjects interacts with a process that values story over the art of photography itself. The role of the photograph isn’t to serve itself, it is to tell a story. The modern photographer, living in the most photographed age in all of human history, is challenged to see the world differently.
Where do ideals of beauty and normalcy come from?
Who makes up these rules, and why can’t they be broken?
When I get home after the long day, I notice that the image on the Safaricom calendar, for the month of June, is that of a dashing man living with albinism carrying a lady in a sundress. The sea behind them is calm, and colored with docked boats and a sky that looks like a painting. She is holding onto his neck; he’s looking adoringly into her eyes with a coy smile. It’s a powerful, unusual image of romance. And it’s Osborne’s work. He took the image last year in Mombasa during Capture Kenya.
Two days after shooting Mengo, Osborne texts to say he lost the images he took. So he called in the models and started all over again.
All images courtesy of Osborne Macharia. Republished with permission.
One story is good,
till Another is told.