Among the most inspiring things art offers us is being allowed to travel in individual aesthetic universes. Seeing things and places differently through someone else’s eyes. Artists who find their own personal aesthetics style and language are wondrous to observe. A great example of this, is the photographer we know as @thanabster on Instagram. His unique minimalism is truly mind-elevating and in some way a celebration of the personal eye and perspective itself. Looking at Nabster’s images we are reminded to embrace our eye and see things in our own way. We are so happy to go behind the lens with this amazing creative and share a beautiful and important conversation with you. It is also our hope that you will join us in raising awareness about, and fighting, the destructive ignorant labelling of contemporary African artists like Nabster as “not African enough” – mainly by non-Africans. More about this in the interview. Let’s be the change. Meet the brilliant Nabster!
Joseph Nabster Chege aka Thanabster, what should I call you?
N: Most people call me ‘Nabster’ only my close family calls me Joseph. My mum used to use it when I did something wrong growing up.
(So from here it is Nabster (N) : ) )
How would you describe yourself to someone who is not familiar with you and your art?
N: I am a fine art photographer with an infinite love for line and symmetry. My primary art form is minimalism. I like to present my subjects within an expanse of space, interacting with line or obliterated by the vastness around them.
What is beautiful?
N: I guess this varies with people, I find beauty in line. Line is the most intuitive means of perceiving and understanding our environment. Recognizing visual structures depends on the recognition of line. They are so simple that nothing can be conceived of without them. Everything can be constructed with lines, but nothing constructs lines. And mixing this with various subjects creates an amazing surreal viewing experience.
How did you find your style? Were you always attracted to minimalism or did that come with time? Was there a defining moment?
N: When I was in uni I used to get images off sites like Picjumbo and edit off components I felt were unnecessary in the frame and put them up as wallpapers on my computer. I always enjoyed seeing compositions with a powerful subject and no other distractions. I have been attracted to minimalism ever since, I just didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. With time as I started photography this became more defined.
Does your eye look for minimalist subjects and places or is it a perspective that you add to any place?
N: Oh I really look for it, especially when it comes to crowded and unstructured places in such a way that I can represent calm amidst chaos. Sometimes it’s a perspective. I have had to re-arrange physical items in a location (like here….) just so that I can have more control of my frame. So I guess it’s a bit of both really. Sometimes you have to create the scene and other times, nature just surprises you.
I think the simplicity in a photograph can intensify and engage the viewer’s imagination so they can be the ones who build a story based on what they see.
Has photography always been a path that felt natural for you to pursue?
N: My background is software design. Growing up I always wanted to make computer and mobile programs and while pursuing this I realized that there was so much more that I could do. Along the way after dabbling in Illustration, music and design – photography became a necessary need that I pursued so as to cater for my design needs. I was tired of using stock images that were repetitive and not really the best representation of how I wanted things, and that’s how my photography path started. As the years passed I slowly developed the style I had envisioned from day one.
What character traits or mindsets/perspectives in you are most important to you as a photographer?
N: Patience is a really big one for me. Sometimes you have to wait for so long just to get that one photo right without running to software so as to “Fix it in post”. For you to get certain shadows, certain weather conditions that are not under your control you have to be really patient with nature. You also really have to be patient, especially here in Kenya where every guard, policeman or official needs an explanations as to why you are carrying equipment, maybe with time and policies this will soon change.
We really had to be patient with this one (photo above). We were in Ngong Hills by 6am and there was zero visibility because of the fog, so we stood around freezing until there was a small clearing within the fog and that 35 minute wait is what made this image so worth it.
Dignity is also something really important to me. I strive to dignify anything I represent through my work, whether. To either preserve or uplift these subjects or spaces and never the opposite.
What gives you confidence? And is personal confidence and creative confidence the same?
N: I get confidence in knowing that my heart is fully in this, that I believe in everything I put out to my audience and future audience. I believe that creative confidence and personal confidence are pegged on each other in a symbiosis of sorts. This is why we feel broken inside when anyone trashes our work and vice versa. The same way good clothes give me confidence out there with people is the same way making an image that blows me away gives me confidence as an artist. You have to love yourself just as you love your work because your heart is in the art.
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?
N: Travel really fuels me. Seeing new things, new culture, new takes on architecture as well as success stories from all the artists I meet during my travels. Being in the unfamiliar presents me with so many possibilities. Allowing me to represents something in a way no other person has.
This is part of a photo series I shot in Liwa Desert Abudhabi, I had never been in such a vast desert before and seeing all that space and never ending sand led to some amazing images. Photo by @thanabster
I once stumbled upon an amazing take of feeling uninspired by amazing writer, illustrator: Marshall Vandruff where he says: “One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again.”
With this in mind, I like to wait things out especially with personal projects.
If you could go anywhere to shoot next week, where would you go and who would you take with you?
N: I would take the first plane to Iceland, with my full kit along with Gabriel Isak (who I am a massive fan of) for my dream collaboration. The thing that draws me to Iceland is the vastness of untouched land by humans, glacial caves, cold deserts, geysers, and the Haifoss waterfalls that I have been dying to visit. I guess it’s the layers upon layers of breathtaking and well preserved landscapes that draws me to Iceland, besides some on my favorite musicians (Bjork, Kiasmos, Gusgus) having their origins in Iceland.
And if you could choose any physical venue anywhere in the world to exhibit your work, where would you want that to be?
N: However ambitious this may be, my dream is to exhibit in Totem Pole Gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District. I am really drawn by Japanese culture, Architecture and Minimalism as a state of mind. There are times when I have put up prints in my house and pretended I was exhibiting in that space lol!
Any other dream project?
N: I have always wanted to work on a Virtual Reality project where users interact with the subjects and spaces in my compositions. I want to mix it up with sound in these environments.
What is the purpose of photography?
N: Wow, this one’s a hard one. I believe photography just like any other art form is meant to make people feel something. Whatever genre of photography it may be, if it invokes emotion, then I believe it has served its purpose. I also feel strongly that at the times we live in, photography really needs to be a tool that shows people new realities and gives new narratives away from prejudices imposed on us by society.
Speaking of new narratives. I know from our conversations that unfortunately your work has sometimes been rejected by gallerists with the highly questionable “it is not African enough”. That must be incredibly frustrating. What are your thoughts on this? What is the African that they look for and where does that particular expectation come from?
N: I have battled for a very long time with what it means for art to be “Afrikan”. The way I look at it, there is no one way to be Afrikan, my work speaks Afrika by virtue of me being Afrikan. I choose to express my realities through my work the way I see best fit, I tell my stories through my style of work. Getting turned down by curators and gallery owners because my work doesn’t conform to their Afrikan prejudices is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of what I do. Because these people do not want to open their eyes to the reality that Afrika is much more than safaris and tribal chieftains, we represent origin, innovation, resources and rich culture. I believe this expectation comes from either colonial ties, or what the media feeds these countries on what and who we are. I take this as a challenge, to break down these prejudices. And to portray my environment with dignity.
How does the creative climate of Nairobi influence you?
N: I’d say this has influenced me in a really positive way. There has been amazing reception to my work, I have been fortunate to speak in workshops about my style of photography and take part in exhibitions because of this climate. There is a lot of positivity and hard work in the scene right now; it’s amazing to be a part of that.
How would you spend a perfect weekend in Nairobi?
N: When I can, love being out of town on weekends preferably lost in vast wheat plantations, or in cozy getaways with great company. But by default I enjoy spending time in my house over copious amount of tea, reading poetry and gardening. I am currently reading Salt. By Nayyirah Waheed, a very intense and truth packed book. On one poem titled Medium she says: “I am simply the poet, the poem is the one that can change your life” this has really challenged me in the sense that whenever I make something new I ask myself “can this influence someone’s life? Can it change someone’s life, can it make them feel something”.
If you would have to remove all photos except three from your Instagram, which ones would stay?
N: Either all go or all stay. Each image I put up represents a certain experience, coupled with a certain story that I felt compelled to tell. You can almost put them all together to tell one big story. I never put anything up if my I don’t truly feel drawn to it. So removing anything is almost like removing little pieces of me.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibitions?
N: I have been working on a project called Cosmos. In this project I explore space, time and line asking myself “what is Earth was a void and desolate place like Mars for instance” It’s a very sci-fi themed project and we are working on having everything in place to exhibit both locally and in New York in a few weeks. I’m really excited about this one. It’s something I have thought and conceptualized for a long time and now I finally get to do it. I will also be showcasing work at Wasp and Sprout in Loresho in June.
Why do you love doing what you do?
N: I get so much fulfillment and joy from making images. It’s almost an emotional release for me. I’d like my work to be a cultural compass, pointing to a more simplistic state of mind. That my collection images will be a history book, rich with elegant compositions, articulate messages, ferocious attitude, boldness and a call for social change.
Last question… we always ask this. What do you wish the world knew about Kenya?
N: That we are much more than wildlife, traditional dancers and political indifferences That we each have an independent aesthetic that is well represented in the Kenyan creative scene. I would like the world to know that we are well represented in whatever art genre they could throw at us.
Thank you so much Nabster for sharing your art, thoughts and inspirations with Meanwhileinkenya.com. We can’t wait to see you at you exhibition!