We spent time with Rodney Avo, a man inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michael Jackson, he enjoys solving visual problems for businesses and also describes himself as a photo manipulator. He’s known for reimagining famous characters as black people. At this juncture we talked about his recent works, which involved exploring Maasai Market — An open-air market tourists can find paintings, drawings, clothes and fabrics with East African print jewelry and wood-carvings, much handmade in Kenya by local artisans. Vibe times you should enjoy:
Richard: So let’s start from here, It’s a market, a busy one at that. What prompted this particular series?
Rodney Avo: The colours. The vibrancy. The foreignness (for lack of a better word). As a visual artist, It’s hard to resist all that Africaness. In the process of haggling with some other artisans, I got familiar with them and I felt they would make good subjects. The final thing that pushed me to take on the project was bringing their version of Africa to a new audience who know nothing of their culture and identity.
Richard: You’re known for reinventing and showcasing what it is to be black, what is your obsession?
Rodney Avo: I didn’t know it was an obsession till you used the word haha. But there’s a very poignant saying by a photographer whose name I forget, “I’m not interested in shooting new things, I am interested to see things new”. It’s a bit of the same for me. Although I like new things, I also try to show things in ways that I haven’t seen, talk less of the average viewer. It’s a very intimate process.
Richard: Anyone reflecting on the portraits of the Massai market will agree that there’s something deep here. For me, there was a message in every contact; the smiles, the hidden agony, the energy. What was it like for you? I believe this must’ve been a life changing experience.
Rodney Avo: Yeah, coming across such unpredictable emotions from strangers can be overwhelming but it’s not my first rodeo, as they say. I’ve been shooting professionally for the past 4 years and I’ve gone to war zones, IDP camps, hostile states and so many personalities that I’m better able to handle the intimacy. And it shows because, I was told by a local that they never allow photographs so for them to have let me in, I must have shown some sort of emotional intelligence. Imagine walking from stall to stall chatting and communicating with these folks, convincing each and every one in different ways to let a stranger photograph them.
Richard: Wow! That’s really hard I must confess.
Rodney Avo: And they’d all ask ‘what for?’ ‘What are you using the images for?’ ‘Are you the competition?’ and I’d have to pick my next words very carefully. One misunderstanding can make them extremely defensive and the shot is gone. That skill to make a stranger drop their walls is just as important as the skill to shoot a portrait. And what this project is, is a show of how far I’ve come as regards to mastery of both skills.
Richard: It seems that color experimentation is a big part of your photography. How do you balance that with the notion behind every image?
Rodney Avo: It is as you called it “experimentation”. Different colors convey different moods and atmospheres. Blue is cool. Red is warm and so on and so forth. I just go with what looks in my eyes and the message I want to send. A lot of the time it’s ‘hit and miss’ but when I nail it, everybody knows. It’s a part of the game I’m yet to master. Taking it one picture at a time.
Richard: Now tell us about Maasai, and about Kenya. what was it like? Cultures, nature, people maybe food too, because I love food 🙂
Rodney Avo: The Massai are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the most popular cultures in the world due to their residence near the many tourist attractions and game parks of the African Great Lakes, and their distinctive customs and dress which is on show at the Massai markets. They are nomadic just like the markets. The Massai market is never in the same place everyday to make them more accessible and profitable. I thought that was clever. The Massaispeak the Maa language, Swahili and English.
I can’t speak about Kenya as a whole. Nairobi is where I was most of the time. Nairobi is like a first class city. It is unbelievable how far they’ve come living in just tourism. Nairobi is also the only city in the world with a wildlife reserve right in the middle of it.
Richard: Yeah, Nairobi has been on my bucket list for years.
Rodney Avo: The weather is very nice there. It’s so cool most of the time that they don’t have fans and air conditioners like we do. Just cool air 24/7. It is also very racially evolved in terms of the relationships between whites and blacks. I saw a lot of interracial couples, and mixed race children.
Richard: I’ve never been pinpointed to this particular fact of Nairobi being vastly interracial, that’s so cool! Let’s talk about you, as a photojournalist (if you’d love to be called that), when you travel to distant places to document life, what do you take with you?
Rodney Avo: Apart from my gear, comfortable clothes. And then, mosquito repellants. I’m ajebo like that.
Richard: Hahaha. Being a photographer in Africa is a real thing now, but it takes a lot for works to stand out, how do you see the creative scene, especially around the visual ecosystem?
Rodney Avo: It’s so dope. Everyone is flexing their creative muscle. Everyone’s pushing the envelope as best as they can. Nigeria’s creative scene has never been better and I’m proud to be part of it. I used to live in South Africa. And just when I got into photography, I had to choose between practising here or in SA. I decided to move back and it seems I picked a moment when the creative scene is beginning to take shape. The age of the Nigerian photographer will soon be upon us. Think of it, the Nigerian music industry has had some stellar personalities on the international stage but only recently are more and more African sounds beginning to become mainstream. Same goes for Nigerian photography. We’re only just getting into our stride but the time is coming when we will be telling our unique stories to the world.
Richard: what’s your own dream for the New Age in Africa? What are you afro-futuristic about?
Rodney Avo: For more opportunities for everyone. For more opportunities for people to do the great things, their meant to do.