Jebet Naava’s art is a milestone. It’s simply a rare thing in this world to discover someone so honest, so generous and so creatively elevated. It is an honour to be their audience. Jebet blows our minds over and over again with her art. It’s not just candid. It’s not just thought-provoking. Not just so beautiful it hurts. It is many many things that are the essence of art and beyond what words can define. We are so immensely happy to feature Jebet Naava with this beautiful conversation about being an artist and human. It’s a privilege to share this interview with you.
Meet Jebet Naava.
How would you describe yourself to someone who is not familiar with you and your art?
JN: I am a 21-year-old artist using photography as my medium. I use portraiture, particularly self-portraiture, as a way to express aspects of the human condition through my eyes. I like to think my art is unique and unconventional. It can be a bit dark and lonely, but it is raw . . .and it is me.
Has art always been a path that felt natural for you to pursue?
JN: I’ve always loved art and I have dipped my foot in a few art forms over the years; but until much recently art wasn’t something I had ever thought could be my life or career simply because I never thought it was an option.
You mix many forms of expression in your art; design, poetry, photography, styling for example. Do they feel like different tools to you or is it more like one big flexible one?
JN: At the moment they all feel like one big flexible one because they are all a very big part of my creative process. I can’t use one without the other, especially when I’m shooting portraits/self portraits.
Something that distinguishes you and that many people associate you with are your self-portraits. Tell us about that. What were your thoughts or feelings when you started to use portraits of yourself to express things? Did you know from the start it would be a path that would last for a long time?
JN: I started self portraiture back in 2014 when I was participating in the ‘Samsung zoom into life’ competition under one of their categories, #selfiesredefined. After shooting a few photographs, I realized that this was something I could use to express a lot of the emotions I had bottled up inside and hopefully free my mind in the process.
The process has been very therapeutic for me, and hearing some people say they can relate to my work has been very encouraging.
What character traits or mindsets/perspectives in you are most important to you as artist?
1. Open-mindedness is super important to me because the more I allow myself to learn/experience new things the more I evolve as an artist.
2. Honesty is also very important to me as an artist and that is why I bare my soul in my work. I feel like people can smell bullshit and ingenuity from a mile away. So though I suffer from extreme self-doubt, being true to one’s self as an artist is very important to me.
3.Expression/release. I think it’s extremely important to express yourself and be true to who you are. In fact one of the main things I want to do with my art is to inspire/help people to express, without fear, the things they struggle to express.
You do amazing collabos with other creatives. How do you choose them and what do you think makes it work?
JN: Strangely enough, most of the artists I have collaborated with reached out to me first.
I think what makes the collaborations work is the VIBE…we have to vibe. If I connect with the other artist I will effortlessly flow with them and surrender myself to what we are creating and experiencing.
Do you think that a responsibility to express things about society comes with artistic excellence?
JN: I think artistic excellence comes with honesty and truth to oneself.
Some of your work, very intense amazing pieces that have been so appreciated by many, talks about mental health and illness, for example depression. Tell us a bit about that?
JN: Depression and mental illness is something that is near and dear to my heart. It is a topic that is belittled and frowned upon; and that is exactly why I wanted to speak on it/share part of my story and express it’s realness in the world.
To this day, that is still one of the hardest projects I have ever worked on and shared. It took a lot out of me, but seeing the positive response to it made it all worth it.
Does being a young woman influence you as an artist? Is it something you think about, related to creative expression or conditions, or is it an insignificant factor?
JN: For me, art has no gender. So the fact that I am female doesn’t really influence me as an artist. However, I appreciate and accept my womanhood and all the things that come with it.
Nairobi has a very unique creative climate. Would you agree? How does this creative climate influence you?
JN: In my experience, the love in the industry far outweighs the hate at the moment. It’s beautiful.
What gives you confidence? And is personal confidence and creative confidence the same?
JN: The realization/assurance that I am not a mistake, and my life isn’t either; and the support and encouragement of the people I value most.
I think personal confidence and creative confidence are two different things but they sometimes go hand in hand.
Do you have a dream project?
JN: YES, yes I do. But at the moment, it is something that I can’t really get to due to lack of resources but I am working on that.
What is your favorite habit?
JN: Hehe, as strange as it sounds, listening to music is my favorite habit. Music keeps me sane/calm.
What is the purpose of art?
JN: I think the purpose of art is subjective. This quote from a character in my favorite movie, Midnight in Paris, summarizes my feelings towards the purpose of art.
“We all fear death, and question our place in the universe, the artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
Through the artist, art is created and experienced; and through art, the artist finds peace and fulfillment.
Can happy art be as powerful as dark art or is there a level of intensity or depth that only conflict can create?
JN: I believe there is definitely a level of intensity that conflict creates, but happy art has power of it’s own as well. Through happy images people experience hope, joy and even sometimes peace. So I think they are both powerful in their own right.
In fact, some of the most liked photographs on my feed are the ones of my subject or me laughing or smiling.
Where do you look for inspiration? What (or who) are your main sources of influence and inspiration? And when you feel uninspired, do you embrace the feeling or try to find inspiration? JN: Pinterest!!!! And tumblr!!! Most of my inspiration comes from these here websites : ) I am inspired by creativity and honesty. I am also inspired by things I see or read that make me think twice or feel (man I use that word, feel, a lot :D) something/anything.
My current major source of inspiration is Woody Allen, as weird as it sounds, his movies make me feel so hopeful. The way he sees things *sigh* he is extraordinary.
A few artists who inspire me on instagram are @ifaithw @dreadthephotographer, @urbanskript, @lafrohemian, @jaydabliu, @themaganga, @jabarijacobs, @cometmuse, @mumbzii, @ah_this, @antisocial_octopus, @amyvisuals and @daviduzochukwu
Whenever I feel uninspired I simply embrace the feeling because fighting it rarely yields any results for me. But luckily, total lack of inspiration doesn’t happen to me often (even when I’m unhappy).
Do you have a particular place that you like to work from or do you like to move around?
JN: I love moving around and experiencing new spaces, even though it can be a bit nerve wrecking.
If we would plan an exhibition with your work and I asked you where you want it to be and which other artist’s work would be exhibited – what would you say?
JN: I would say YES! Having my work exhibited is a dream/goal of mine.
In Kenya, I would love to have my work exhibited at the Circle Art Gallery or the Shifteye Gallery.
Internationally, I would love to have my work exhibited at 511 Gallery in New York.
I would have Tanya Mumbua, a self taught sketch artist and painter; Imeldah Kondo, a writer and photographer (who I collaborate with often); Lindsay Obath, an extremely talented painter, sketch artist and all round creative; Josemarie Nyagah, a fellow self-portrait artist and photographer; and Faith Wanjala, an expressive artist and photographer.
And if I could afford it, I would have the sweet sounds of Yellow Light Machine, my favorite Kenyan band, and the East African Wave collective.
Is there something you do every day?
JN: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I do every day without fail except listen to music. But every other day I edit both old and new projects.
Is there any other form of creative expression that you would like to explore?
JN: Yes, as many as I can. I don’t mind being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. At the moment, however, I am exploring film and I’m falling more and more in love with it every day.
I also paint, despite my shaky hands and lack of training/talent, lol.
Is there a piece of your work that you feel particularly emotionally attached to?
JN: There is a series of photographs I took about two months ago, of a friend who is going through a tough time, in an attempt to help her express suppressed emotions. The outcome was like nothing I had ever seen/done before and it is, and I think will always be, my favorite project of all time, whether or not I get to share it with the world (as I currently feel like it is too private to be shared)
Two questions everyone featured on MiKe gets: Why do you love doing what you do? And – what do you wish the world knew about Kenya?
JN: I love creating because I feel it connects me to myself and to the world.
I wish the world knew that Kenya’s music scene is straight fire. There are so many young, talented musicians creating new sounds/experiences that are changing the way I had always viewed Kenyan music.
How would you spend a perfect weekend in Nairobi?
JN: My ideal weekend in Nairobi would begin on a rainy Saturday morning at my favorite coffee shop, editing while enjoying a triple cappuccino. Followed by a trip to Karura Forest for a bike ride with my favorite people and my camera.
And just like that, my weekend would be perfect. All I need is my people, coffee and my camera.
ALL IMAGES IN THIS POST BY JEBET NAAVA.