There are some great things about the internet, one of them is Kenyan digital artist Isaac Kariuki. Kariuki is a visual artist based in London and Nairobi and is one of my favorite digital experimental artists. He is also the founder of Diaspora Drama, a zine that is dedicated to “creative and offbeat people of colour in cyberspace”. We had a conversation about digital art and his observations and projects on internet culture, here is our conversation..
Coming from Kenya, it is not the most conventional route to go into digital art, how did you become a digital artist? Can you describe your journey?
As a typical jaded millennial, I had aspirations of escaping my current circumstances and climate so pursuing art felt less like escapism and more like a the most open and accessible space. I was a decent fine artist but my ideas never translated well enough on paper.
During my last year of secondary school, I usually took pictures of what I wanted to draw for my art class, which I usually edited on Photoshop. I ended up enjoying this more than the fine art side of it and my teachers took notice and let me do most of my final project digitally and I went on from there
You described in an interview that your “art comes from nostalgia”, can you speak more to this? How does your work reflect how you grew up? Where do your feelings of nostalgia lead you?
My project SIM Card series is a collection of my feelings towards Safaricom (Kenya’s leading network carrier) and it’s monopolization and covertly oppressive tactics mixed with my memories of my witnessing of Kenya’s mobile phone culture expanding and witnessing all these carriers grow and eventually implode.
I like placing certain trends, tropes and phenomena within certain eras. I’m sort of known for having encyclopedic knowledge to do with this and it’s largely due to my obsession with nostalgia. The function of nostalgia’s always going to be scrutinized, from every angle like the possible fear of death or Peter Pan syndrome but no one’s really going to find a conclusion but rather their own take on it.
From my perspective, nostalgia comes from a basic place of modern day unhappiness. I found solace in a lot of the media I consumed as a child. I also have really horrible memory so remembering these fragments in my brain feels like something I should dissect in my work. Like there must be a unique reason why my brain retained every Power Rangers theme song but not the quadratic formula.
Though there’s a strange trend going on right now not just in art but pop culture consumers where we’re nostalgic just to prove that we remember and that we were there at this shared moment.
Virality to me is frivolous and a waste of energy, better enrich your craft than be a fleeting moment.
Your artwork address internet culture, in my opinion as artists we are barely scratching the surface in interrogating internet culture, how does your artwork address internet culture?
I think you’re completely right. The internet is like 10,000 leagues of underground of new terrains being discovered each day. There’s always a new article about ‘[platform] is dead!’ when in actually it’s just shifted in demographic, facebook’s not dead it’s just not as popular in western countries. I think we’re always trying to rush to make conclusive thoughts on the internet to calm our anxiety and jumpy feelings that the internet is going to turn on us or even worse, remind us that we’re individually gonna stop catching up to it.
I try to address the internet as honestly as I can and I’ll continue to do so until I have nothing else to get from it.
You describe yourself of being a sort of recluse, do you think you have found your ‘tribe’ online, can you describe your internet community?
I meet several people who eventually end up knowing each other so it becomes some sort of invisible circle. Some of my best friends I’ve met online or had my friendships and collaborations strengthened through it.
I first met writer and activist, Cameron Russell through twitter and she was a major part of my zine actualizing physically.
Can you tell me more about diaspora drama, how did it come about?
Diaspora Drama is a zine about people of colour who make art and write on the internet. I work with my editors Lulu Roman, Amal Hassan and Momtaza Mehri. I browsed through the diaspora tag on tumblr and it was filled with some of the most melancholic poetry with metaphors of trees and mangoes. Of course these experiences are legit and should be recognized but I also wanted to carve out a little space that let us explore our quirks and interests. I’m still fawning over the amazing talent we attract. It’s really one of the best things that’s come out of my experience online.
The internet is like 10,000 leagues of underground of new terrains being discovered each day.
One of the major challenges is that people within Africa first experience the internet through Facebook. Culturally Facebook and other popular social media sites promote a culture of consumption rather than creation, do you have any thoughts to this? Are you at all concerned by Africa’s exposure to Facebook? How would you recommend artists to combat or address this?
I recently read that as of April 12, 2016, publishers and platforms can directly post their full content on facebook, which if you look through a cynical lens like I do, the move is obviously a push for users to spend more time on facebook and publishers having a greater reliance on facebook, way more than they imagined.
I imagine big African publishers will hop on this but it will largely be a space for western content to be spread quicker and more efficiently now that there won’t be any chance of paywalls and country restrictions occurring. The western omnipresence on facebook, for me really started to happen around 2013-14 when Pages had to pay a fee to have their uploaded videos be shared past 100 viewers. This permitted only people with money were capable of creating viral content and they knew how to. Buzzfeed knows what would circulate; The Daily Show knows what would anger people. They use language and humor filled laced with irony and references built for western audiences that we have to decipher on our own. It’s all math equation, a competitive sport we can only spectate in.
I would suggest (only suggest – urging people on how they should use the internet is way too condescending and inconsiderate) that we perhaps not be deeply gratified when these outlets acknowledge us because it’s a strange feeling to even consider reducing our glide into westernization.
I like placing certain trends, tropes and phenomena within certain eras. I’m sort of known for having encyclopedic knowledge to do with this and it’s largely due to my obsession with nostalgia.
Apparently Kim Kardashian ‘broke the internet’ last year, do you have any suggestions or recommendations on how more African artists and users can break the internet and use it as a tool/medium/movement?
Virality to me is frivolous and a waste of energy, better enrich your craft than be a fleeting moment. Remember Kony2012? It says in the title – it was four years ago!
You described that you have a large collection of stock images (11gb+ last time you mentioned it) why do you think you have this propensity for ‘digital hoarding’, how has it influenced your work?
I made a typing error and meant to say 1gb but maybe that was my brain having a premonition of what my hard drive will become. I like noticing and searching for patterns. Some of it is disturbing as you’re the only one who notices the uncanny valley aspects of corporate stock images and it’s relation to actual corporate survival. There are others who are avid digital hoarders, I especially love MALAXA by Tabita Rezaire and Alicia Mersy and the facebook (lol) page Ariane – The Overexposed Stock Image Model
Anything else you want to add/projects to share?
I’m currently open for submission for the third issue of my zine! More info at diasporadrama.com