A review of “Pagans,” a striking show by Kenyan photographer and filmmaker Jim Chuchu — who is living as an openly gay man in a country where homosexuality is illegal — at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery through June 13.
It takes only one look at Jim Chuchu’s photographs in “Pagans,” at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, to start wondering how these extraordinary images were made and what inspired them.
Chuchu is a soft-spoken, openly gay photographer and filmmaker living in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal. His photographs imagine a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Kenya that is, he said during a recent visit to Seattle, far removed from the experience of his own generation.
“When foreigners come and take photos of African whatever, there’s always this kind of mysticism that’s hinted at in the books. But it’s very alien to us — which sounds odd, obviously, because as Africans you’d imagine that we are very much in touch with that mysticism that foreigners find in our country. So I had an interest in that kind of spirituality.”
Jim Chuchu: ‘Pagans’
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays, through June 13, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, 608 Second Ave., Seattle (206-467-4927 or marianeibrahim.com).
There was no direct way for him to access traditional African spiritual practices, however. Even the older generations who knew a little about it are Christian now, he says, and believe “it’s kind of ‘not good’ to talk about those things.” So Chuchu found himself re-creating that spiritual realm in his artwork.
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Chuchu’s black-and-white photographs aren’t simply photographs. He watercolors or draws in pencil on his original shot, then digitally scans the altered photograph and further manipulates it.
The result is a collagelike visual world that’s both primal and sophisticated. “Pagans VIII” portrays a man calmly gazing skyward, seemingly oblivious to the feathers and fire that seem to be erupting from his eyes. In “Pagans IX,” a swiveling shamanlike figure with his hands raised in the air appears to be conjuring galaxies from the tips of his fingers.
The female model for “Pagans XIII,” “Pagans XIV” and “Pagans XV” strikes quieter poses, but nevertheless hints at mysteries and visions. Other shots in the series feature multiple figures. In “Pagans XI,” for instance, three men ecstatically channel their bodies’ energy into flashes of lightning, arcs of water spray or thin ghostly smoke plumes.
The one video installation in the show, “Invocation,” is just as striking. Using digital wizardry to form multiple figures from a single model (Chuchu himself), it’s a hallucinatory cry of independence, as formally rigorous in its sounds and rhythms as it is beautiful (Chuchu also composed the score).
Chuchu studied IT in college, where he discovered Photoshop (“What is that?” he remembers asking), and found work at a Nairobi ad agency immediately upon graduating. Six months later, after borrowing money from his brother to buy a camera, he became a freelance graphic designer, continuing to experiment with his personal photography all the while.
“Pagans” is his first one-man show anywhere in the world. In Kenya, access to his work is chiefly restricted to his website (jimchuchu.com) and the website of The Nest (thisisthenest.com), a multidisciplinary collective Chuchu co-founded that’s dedicated to “exploring our troubling modern identities, re-imagining our pasts and inhabiting mythical African futures.”
The Nest’s 2014 feature film, “Stories of Our Lives,” directed and cowritten by Chuchu, has played at more than a dozen film festivals around world. Because it examines the lives of young gays and lesbians, it has been banned in Kenya.
“There was some very immediate effect,” Chuchu notes, “in terms of our producer being arrested, and our neighbors wanting to get us to move out, and all these silences that we had to navigate with our families and our friends.”
Despite these obstacles, Chuchu has never considered leaving Nairobi: “I get homesick, violently homesick,” he smiles, “if I spend, like, more than five days away.”