Diaspora Drama and Duas: Visual Artist Isaac Kariuki on Identity

Kenyan-born, London-based visual artist, Isaac Kariuki discusses his artistic aesthetic, ethnic and religious identity, and tackling hypermasculinity.

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Aug 29 2015, 6:00pm

Photos courtesy of Isaac Kariuki

Isaac Kariuki is a Kenyan born, London-based visual artist. Recently graduated, he works for and is mentored by Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan artist who is well known for his take on North African—more specifically Moroccan—street culture. Hajjaj centers his work on said street culture's vibrancy, its balance of traditional Amazigh and colonialist Arab influences, and the confluence of intersectionality on North African and Western identity. Kariuki is also the founder of Diaspora Drama, a zine dedicated to the children of immigrants who don't quite fit into the mold that Western society carves for them. These diasporic children are creative and offbeat--something Kariuki identities with fervently. Last year he told Swagger NYC, "I knew [Diaspora Drama] had to be personal, it had to say something, otherwise it's pointless." On top of that he's also heavily involved in the UK-based fashion agency for models of color, Lorde Inc.

From the series Skype Fashion Week

His interests, both personally and professionally, lie in art made by people of color, for people of color—but also on the nuances of masculinity, hypermasculinity, and the question of what makes a man. Just recently he finished a video essay entitled Not a Woman, Not Yet a Man: Pop Music and Masculinity which riffs off of the famous Prince quote "I'm not a woman / I'm not a man / I am something that you'll never understand" in the lyrics to I Would Die 4 U where Prince essentially declared his gender fluidity on the 1984 album Purple Rain. Kariuki unpacks the media frenzy around that—many mistook that line as Prince declaring himself as a deity, when it was more a declaration of personhood—and what it means to be a male pop star through and around the lens and limitations of gender.

Personally, on top of all the great work Kariuki has been making and contributing to. I wanted to ask him about Islam, and although Kariuki isn't necessarily religious, he speaks about it from the context of "energy."

Broadly: Tell me about yourself as a person.
Isaac Kariuki: I tend to be pretty reclusive. I just graduated university so I'm currently burying myself in all my interests and hobbies, which for the most part don't require human interaction. It was the same growing up in Kenya - I'd have to catch myself before I get too isolated. Not sure if I'm naturally this way, but relating to Silas Marner at age 17 was a bit much.

Picking up a camera really helps with that because you'll eventually tire of taking still lifes in your bedroom and have to venture out of your house. Though I do lots of portraits in one day and immediately retreat back into hibernation, it does feel like an accomplishment.

Cultural identity is built on hostility towards just existing.

Tell me about yourself as an artist.
I'm still trying to define what kind of artist I am and what kind of presence I'm making. I've always been fascinated by subjects that most people find frivolous or shallow, especially on the Internet. I'm constantly talking about what I've dubbed 'selfie theory' and really exploring what selfies represent as more and more people have access to cell phones and the Internet. I guess it's all about consumption and distribution, almost like cultural identity is built on hostility towards just existing.

In May I had an exhibition for Meta Gallery Miami with Rayanne Bushell, where in the middle of the gallery, we had a webcam set up for people to take selfies. In just one day we had over 200 selfies taken. I think Internet identities should be inspected beyond the performance because every 'act' operates in order to navigate inside a certain social class and setting. It makes sense: The Internet is such a segregated space anyway, so it's just inevitable. In a sense that's really where I am as an artist. Inspecting why I like what I like.

Do you consider yourself a Muslim artist?
My faith has never really had a part in my work. I think it would be interesting, but it would feel forced and unnatural. Only about a year ago I started making art that I wanted to see, art that wasn't for the consumption of people who were nothing like me. My art comes from a lot of nostalgia, which happens to be hours of Digimon and Power Rangers. It would be dishonest and counter-punk of me to force faith into it.

Does Islam play an important role in your life as an artist?
My family hasn't really been devoted to faith that heavy in the last 10 years and I sort of took that on. We still carry a lot of belief - you know just the energy that comes from religion without ever putting a label on it? We always pray - when one of us is about to board a flight, before dinner etc... so a lot of this 'energy' permeates into my practice because I do pray before an exhibition or when I'm not quite sure what I'm doing.

From the series Weaponise The Internet

Do you think Islam and art crossover at all, if not—why?
Yes, and I love it! I know a lot of Muslim artists like Zarina Muhammad and Sofia Niazi that don't incorporate Islam into their work (at least I feel so). There's so much for millenials to explore when it comes to Islam right now in the Internet age. I saw a meme called 'Fasting & Furious' and another on Drake turning into a Muslim roadman from Edgware Road (a 10 mile-long almost straight road in London famous for its diverse cuisine). It's kind of exhilarating because the Internet and modern art is so rapid and all about maximalism so when faith is brought into it there's a sort of calmness and humanity to the practice.

Tell me about the Diaspora Drama; why did you decide to make it?
It's a quarterly zine I describe as 'celebrating creative and offbeat people of color on the internet' and that's what it's been for the first two issues. I went through the 'diaspora' tag on Tumblr and it was an incredible downer. A lot of poetry with tree branches motifs and it's definitely a real thing diasporic kids deal with but there's the other side of our identity that's largely left out and that's the unusual and quirky interests we take on creatively.

In the last issue we had artist Edgardo Antonio Jr. display his project Los Cassettes: Musica de Mis Padres: still-life photos of the cassettes his parents listened to after recently immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico and El Salvador. They served as a break from their service jobs to let loose and enjoy themselves.

There's so many elements of quirkiness and joy I desperately wanna convey. I jokingly talked about having a mini-zine before the next issue dedicated to Zayn Malik and I got an overwhelming amount of support and people asking to contribute, so it basically has to happen. My main take away from the zine is that as people of color, we always find a way to navigate and cope and really it's not that deep.

I feel that for men of color, there's a certain level of hypermasculinity they exude.

What drives you to make the art you do?
It's always a strange and random fascination that manifests and grows over time. I was just telling my friend Kareem how I barely have any space on my hard drive because I have a folder that's 11 GB and it just contains stock photos—hundreds of hi-res images. A lot of the images are corporate images, because I was always fascinated by them, especially the ones of men of color that are on there. I feel that for men of color, there's a certain level of hypermasculinity they exude, especially for MOC in the West because they may feel emasculated in these countries. Often this is projected into their internalized misogyny, homophobia and transmisogyny.

I made a video essay exploring masculinity in the context of pop music. It's a strange combination because pop is so genderless and fluid while masculinity is rigid and compounded by unspoken rules. Yet we have artists like Justin Timberlake making not one but two music videos incorporating surveillance footage onto a woman's private home as he tells them "cry me a river" or that he's bringing sexy back. We can so easily produce images that contribute to violence against women and minorities. As someone that loves pop music and popular culture, I found it as an obligation to bring it up.

What's your plan for the future of art, preferably within in the context of the Muslim World?
I want Muslim artists to feel safe when discussing how their religion impacts their work, life, dating, sex and also how little it does. We can learn a lot about ourselves as we're all constantly growing.