I’ve seen Kene work, somewhat. He sets up these lights, and paces in between fiddling with handles and placements on White floors. A camera, clicks repeatedly and light is refracted from a large White oval stand. I’ve even posed for him twice. The process didn’t take long. I sat, I moved my head and at points he would shout “stay, just like that yeah.” He clicked and clicked, and we were done. I’d get slides in my inbox. The second time, I didn’t look at the soft copies till they were emailed to me. The first time I asked to view the shots, I thought to myself “damn, I’m pretty” and for someone who woke up less than an hour ago carrying an unwashed face.
Kene Nwatu has an Instagram page where he shares some of his work. He primarily shares portraits as I have described above. He’s photographed celebrities and people otherwise. He shoots in hues of Grey White and Black, each color is never explicitly so. It lends a clichéd gravity to his subjects’ face but it works, mostly. Although one often wants to wonder, why can’t he just shoot a happy looking person? Even Inez and Vinoodh, the wonder duo and gold standard for photography often capture their subjects in states beyond grim or important looking.
But it could also be drawn from his other influences, a primary one which rests in classical paintings. Before art blew into the exploration of concepts, the mere idea of art simply existed as a way of rendering what the eyes saw unto canvas. Portraits though popular were not as commonplace and certainly cost more. It made sense for the subjects to pose for posterity looking as valuable as possible, this sentiment extended to facial expressions. Today the Mona Lisa, save for its technical value draw praise for some of its cheekiness. You can see her smirk just a little, but we digress.
Most people who will encounter Kene Nwatu will label him portrait maker. Except, I viciously disagree. Based on demand and the generally inflexible nature of our society towards critical creative expression, many are yet to encounter the blooming conceptual ambitions of this young talent.
Take for instance his self-portraits, simple insightful snaps into larger ideas. His first exhibition forms of life took on the story of man, not within linear structure but around the set of expectations and values launched from birth. Man is conceived, man must develop, must create, must seek a higher power, must engage in leisure and must be safe. Simultaneously he plugs into two metrics. As a millennial he understands the preferences for easy to grasp images. Yet he also reads a lot, his photos denote ideas, expand on them and snap them back into simple bites for an audience. Forms of Life, beyond ideas takes inspiration from classical sculptural figures. He uses his body to represent the stages In millennial speak, Kene uses his own body to pose through all the familiar motions we call adulting.
In another of his self-portraits he depicts the universal internal struggle of being painfully young. In one, a triangular shaped object is going through his backwards bent head, such pressure. The object blurs the head, distorted. In the other he is multiple persons, four exactly. One Kene is seated in the middle of the other three who are on his left right and back competing for the attention of the individual in the center, who is coincidentally devoid of distinctive facial features. Confusion na wa.
Instagram changed many obvious things, most of all for myself and many young people it constructed and gave free pass to this big amazing highway filled with cultural representations and interactions. Photography is the gateway drug to this world, an easy to absorb medium less enshrouded in the esoterism of more demanding technical forms of work. Or perhaps it is simple in this age of selfies the language millennials are most attuned to. Photography is in no way a lesser art but its accessibility is uncontested. Even paintings of fruit bowls or dogs playing poker could not compete with the initial catch of photography. Perhaps because no other form of still art has ever been able to duplicate our humanity like photography. The medium makes photocopies and layers them with history or context or play. In this form, we have a rising talent. Check out his page sometime.
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