Joel Lukhovi lives in Nairobi. Besides studying literature, he is a passionate, self-taught contemporary photographer. We met him at “Kuona Trust – Centre for visual Arts”.
Interviewer: Philipp Günther
Since when are you practicing photography?
I started photography six years ago, but I have been practicing the art for four years now, since I left engineering-school. My journey into photography began simply by generating an interest in expressive art and light. I have been working to develop the art to this very moment. There is a sense of responsibility in my work, together with consciousness. I want to show the public the changing situation in Africa and the kind of stories that can be generated from here. That has always been my intention every time I study and practice art. Every day, I feel I learn something new about my people and environment by deciphering hidden lines and using my travels and experiences through photography. While I practice, I study new techniques of the art.
Are you able to live on photography?
Yes, I comfortably live on photography since it is changing right now. It is not entirely what it was a few years ago. Artists struggled to make a decent living out of art, but now it is changing to the better. I support myself through photography. Basically, it is being able to establish your trade as an artist and that is what I have been doing over the past years. I try to understand the world I am living in from an African point of view.
I heard that people here are not that interested in art. Has the audience meanwhile changed in Nairobi or Kenya?
Yes and no. It is true and untrue. The major challenge with art in Kenya has been ignorance from the general public, but perceptions in Nairobi about art are now changing due to increased knowledge. The problem with art in Kenya is due to the fact that the government has not put enough support and resources on art-related courses. During my time in high school, we had art courses; unfortunately, they were scrapped off from the syllabus to pave way for science-related courses. Eventually as we were growing up, the mind of the people changed with the desire of doing better in a science-course than doing an art-course. But a few opted to do art.
Reason as to why people do not buy art is their perception that art is expensive or rather not a necessity for certain people. Fortunately, a lot of cooperates and organizations have ventured into art this year. This is because of the fact that the industry is growing. Presently, we are getting a lot of support from companies, embassies, and a number of individuals. So probably in the next two or three years, more people will buy art out of interest.
What is going on besides buying art? Are people at least interested?
Am I allowed to say, it is pure ignorance? People really don't want to find out what is available. Someone walks into a store and collects a cheap piece of art or travels to China and gets something going by the name “art”. They believe that art is expensive and therefore, they try to get something cheaper than that. Looking at it from a collector’s point of view, I don't believe art is expensive. A number of factors come about to make that particular piece of art get its worth.
Why is that? Is it just because of education?
I think it's because of education. And based on what I am doing right now – I am studying literature – I would say the issue that effected how people respond to art is the aspect of colonization. People from here look at art from the European point of view, but that’s not the case. Most of the African culture was swept and kept under the carpet for almost a century. Eventually, most of the Kenyans and Africans adopted the Western way of living and forgot their roots and culture.
Forgetting to remember one’s culture and way of life is compared to knowing nothing in the African traditions. We talk much about ‘successful integration’, mostly in the terms of how much immigrants take on traditions and rules of their new home country. Or rather how ‘unsuccessful’ the integration is? Initially, people in Africa used to paint and scrub on rocks, caves, and leather. They used to perform all this as a form of art and place the pieces in their homes.
Eventually, because of ‘development’ and colonization, people were blinded into accepting other foreign ways of living and not really understanding their very own ways. Is it better to study your culture and traditions from your point of view or from another point of view? Basically, these are some of the ways that have affected people to respond this way to art. It’s a lack of education.
What is your motivation to practice and study art?
My main motivation of doing art is getting the identity of people. This is why I am doing photography; getting to understand people and getting to know the bases of where they are. Like what is the liberating feeling about them? The whole thing of moving forward is what motivates me to do photography. Photography is a powerful tool and I do feel that I have a task to fulfil as a photographer. Sometimes, situations that cannot be explained can be shown.
Also in a way to get to know people, how they feel?
In a way of getting to know how people are, what people are, what the future holds for them, how are they looking at the world. Is it just based on where they are or somewhere else? It's a matter of looking at the spheres and identities of people and their environment.
Then, how are people?
People are different and have varying thoughts. I have been fortunate enough to move in the Eastern African region and study different cultures within. What I have been able to learn is that people have their own unique way of thinking, but the arrangement is somehow similar.
I remember when I was in Kampala and I stood on top of one of the seven hills that make the city and looked across. Kampala is a mix-up that has a beautiful landscape with all the colours. Everyone and everything stops here and there. A friend of mine told me that this city is disorganized and it does not have a proper planning like Nairobi. I somehow agree, but in my case, I really love it that way. The whole interaction and movement of people on bicycles and motorbikes literally forms a piece of art that is unique. And that is basic life for the residents. Different places are able to inspire and give me different thoughts about how people and spaces are. It opens my eyes to look at how the world is made.
Who is buying your art? Are these mainly Europeans or Africans?
Both Europeans and Africans buy my artwork. A certain type of people, who have a keen taste to the kind of photography I do, get to purchase my works. I would say many people around the continent feel my images. I am able to sell in almost all of the five continents. I have noticed recently that many Kenyans and Ugandans are now buying my art.
How does it make you feel? What does it do to you that locals buy less art? Is it linked to an acceptance about what you are doing?
If I leave Nairobi and probably go to Europe or America and do my work there, I get reputation for something small that I have done and then get an award and recognition. Once one moves here, it feels like you have established your reputation. It’s the doubt that people put on you as an artist. But if you are doing your stuff for a long period of time, there won't be any notice of what you are doing. So for the African artists, and probably for the Kenyan as well, you have to struggle a lot to get that recognition.
If you are able to work with people locally and become fortunate to join foreign organizations, then you get promoted and start to rise. Most of the successful artists have had to travel out, got recognition for their work and then came back home. That is how one gets to progress here. That is the struggle for the Kenyan and African artist.