“…in delving deeper into my work, I have been seeing that these all are quite sentimental and emotional scenes. At first, I considered maybe stepping away from that approach, but at this point in my practice, I think it’s interesting—it’s a different way of looking, a different way of experiencing a place, and also something that people don’t expect. Those are precisely the things that I feel are important to keep in mind while processing these emotional, nostalgic, and kind of melancholic images. I want to look at space in different ways, and form a unique narrative by bringing together elements that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine as cohesive…” Mimi Cherono Ng’ok
Light streams through gauzy white curtains, illuminating the background of a quotidian morning scene. Speckling the dark wooden floor with golden shine, the warmth of the sun infuses further comfort into the interior—beckoning us to take a seat at the somewhat familiar dining table. Drawn from Mimi Cherono Ng’ok’s ongoing series “The Other Country,” which explores nostalgia and melancholia within family life, this image is featured in the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in London, amongst other selections from the photographer’s ever-expanding corpus.
With a unique treatment of an itinerant practice, Cherono Ng’ok often investigates these elements of home and identity in her works, sometimes alongside issues of displacement and loss. Having completed residences in Accra, Salvador de Bahia, Berlin, and Abidjan, she creates intimate compositions that depend on a complete immersion within one’s surroundings. Yet, in the continual return to her home in Nairobi, Cherono Ng’ok charts emotional cartographies across these spaces, giving a visual record of the subtleties and complexities of life as she experiences it.
In the weeks leading up to the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary African art fair in London, Cherono Ng’ok took some time to speak about the ways in which identity, materiality, and movement operate within her photographic practice.
Oluremi C. Onabanjo: You have just completed a residency at Abidjan-based Fondation Donhwahi, with whom you will be showing at 1:54, and later in the month your work will be exhibited at Bamako Encounters, the photography Biennale in Bamako, Mali. How do you feel at this moment in your career, with the bodies of work you have developed?
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok: It’s hard to say, because up until this point I’ve really been focused on making work. I haven’t had a moment to actually pause. It was a bit of a difficult year for me, with the passing of Thabiso Sekgala. I’ve been trying to reconcile what happened to him, while still making work, pressing on. Our group show, Peregrinate: Field Notes on Time and Space, also continues to travel. A lot of the images I’m making sometimes remind me of him and things we talked about. So now I think coming from the residency at Fondation Donwahi, I’m starting to actually take a moment, and take stock of everything that’s happening. Also, while making all of this work, I feel that I have been making very quick decisions about how the pieces are exhibited. I wanted to step back, take a moment, and look at the images. I wanted to see the relationships between them, and explore more innovative ways of presentation—whether it is by testing out different sizes of printing, or different kinds of paper.
This exploration seems also present in the way you shoot, but only to a certain extent. While you experiment between 35mm and medium format, and oscillate between black and white and color, you still work chiefly in analogue. Why is that?
I can’t say an exact reason as to why I’m still drawn to analogue, but I think because that was my beginning, it is where I’m most familiar. To me, film has a really beautiful quality in terms of the color range that you can get—it has a materiality to it. I like having the option of 12 shots for the medium format or 36 for the 35mm, and then I also like playing around with the different formats, so how the camera feels whether it’s medium format or whether I use a 35mm camera. When I was in Brazil, I did try to do some work in digital, but I have noticed that film also provides me with time and space. I try to shoot very often, every day if possible. Not necessarily a roll a day, but at least two images if I’m travelling or even if I’m at home. With analogue, while I’m continually taking these images, it usually takes a while before I get the images back. This inevitably means that there is a break between making the images and seeing them, so sometimes I go a month to two months before I sit down and look at them, but I revel in that moment where it’s like taking the picture again. With that break in perceiving the images, suddenly there are always new things to see, and sometimes images that I thought were actually the most interesting end up not being that compelling, so the slowness of the analogue process has been really important to me.
As you just arrived in Nairobi, and are beginning this process of returning to the images, are there any recurring visual motifs or symbols you have seen in your work?
Yes, what I noticed this year is that I really love plantain and banana trees. I keep going back to still life. I have also noticed that my images are really ordinary. At times I think people might find them a bit boring, just because they seem simple, but in delving deeper into my work, I have been seeing that these all are quite sentimental and emotional scenes. At first, I considered maybe stepping away from that approach, but at this point in my practice, I think it’s interesting—it’s a different way of looking, a different way of experiencing a place, and also something that people don’t expect. Those are precisely the things that I feel are important to keep in mind while processing these emotional, nostalgic, and kind of melancholic images. I want to look at space in different ways, and form a unique narrative by bringing together elements that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine as cohesive.
Your practice seems to be very much an itinerant one, with you traversing various parts of the African continent and the globe, but retaining a stronghold in Nairobi—a dynamic reflected in the subject matter of your various photographic series. How do you respond to the specific realities across these different geographies, yet retain a strong creative voice?
I’ve noticed that for me, the process depends on how open I am—if I get to a place with a particular purpose in mind, then I already feel like there’s a limit, as that is the only thing I’m looking at. What has helped me greatly is to go to a place and completely immerse myself in it—just, notice it. I love that moment when you’re in a new place and everything is completely unfamiliar and you don’t know how to make sense of it. Then a couple weeks later, you start to have your own pattern, or recognition that “oh, okay this is this place.” So I think discovery is only possible as much as you open yourself up. I also find it helpful to keep in mind that the thread that connects all of these places is me, my presence there. Rather than trying to make sense of the images in a very specific way, I am making work around my experience being in this place—however long or short that is.
For example, for Dakar I was there for five days throughout, and Abidjan I was there for almost two months. When I look at the images, sometimes I think there’s no relationship, but when I think about all the things I’m going through, I start to see that the thread is myself. I am the anchor in all of the work that is being made, and that should be the approach. In between my travels, my coming back to Nairobi is just a way to think about all the experiences I’m having and how they relate to each other, as well as just to pause. Nairobi is a place where I can come back and look at things, consider what is important, and keep working. I feel like there isn’t a large divide between my practice and my life, they are intrinsically intertwined. I have started to notice that it’s not necessarily important to consider the subject matter, but rather to be attuned to how I’m feeling around the time that I’m making images—that’s why I’m shooting everyday: to view image-making through the lens of emotions, like sadness or anger. Then two or three months down the line, I revisit those emotions in the work. My experiences are in the work that I’m making.
I am interested in your ongoing project in Kenya—“The Other Country,” which you started in 2008. What observations have you made as the series has progressed?
I think the work from Kenya has helped me realize that I’m really drawn to working in a visual diary kind of format. I keep coming back to it, because there are still many images I have to make here just to resolve the issues I have about being in Kenya, being in Nairobi. Also, my most interesting subjects have been my family members. It’s not a one-time thing where I take the images and I leave, but they are actually a part of the process, which has really helped me grow as a photographer. To make images that are so close, so intimate—it’s really intense as a process.
It’s interesting to think of this revisiting en lieu of your treatment of interiors and exteriors—the focus given to interior objects and the human form within those spaces, it’s really nuanced and delicate. Then to see that same approach taken to billowing sheets hanging outside, or the various parts of a backyard—perhaps one could consider Nairobi as your ultimate interior, and then these various sites across the African continent and the globe as exteriors—spaces that are at first unfamiliar, but reconcilable through an openness on your part.
Exactly. I think for me photography has always shown me how vulnerable you can be. In fact, sometimes I think I shy away from work, because it feels like I’m asking too much of myself—that I’m going too deep. Working with my family has made that process easier, where I’m going deeper, I’m going closer, but not in a way that is frightening. It’s an interaction that allows for a lot of growth. I’ve been trying to take that relationship to other work I make, and by continually returning to the series, the process gives me a map of how to learn a faithfulness to image-making in terms of how open I want to be with people. When you photograph again and again in your own space, the act can give you a different perception of certain objects—it adds sincerity to the way you are looking.
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok is a photographer currently based in Nairobi. She will be exhibiting at the third edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London with Fondation Donwahi (Oct 2015). Earlier this year, she was selected to exhibit in the upcoming Bamako Encounters, the Biennale of African Photography in Bamako, Mali. Following her studies at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, she participated in residences in Brazil, Berlin, Accra, and most recently, Abidjan. In 2011, Cherono Ng’ok won first prize in the PhotoAfrica contest with her entry, Self-portrait. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at Tiwani Contemporary (2015); Savvy Contemporary (2011); Dak’art: African Contemporary Art Biennale (2014); the Market Photo Workshop (2008).
Oluremi C. Onabanjo is assistant curator and artist liaison at the Walther Collection. She holds an undergraduate degree in African Studies from Columbia University, and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Oxford University. She has assisted with exhibitions at the Museum of African Design, Johannesburg; No Longer Empty, New York; the Walther Collection, New York and Neu-Ulm, Germany; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.