Jacque Njeri’s story is one of success and inspiration. Her MaaSci series were first published on a friend’s blog before catching the eye of CNN and the BBC and making her world-famous. A year later her shepherds-turned-astronauts were exhibited at the 2018 Other Futures conference in Amsterdam, where she was speaking in the same event as her mentor Wanuri Kahiu and inspiration Nnedi Okorafor. As she is now getting ready to give her first TED-Talk, Jacque Njeri works around the Continent, associating her art to creative ICT projects that “empower young Africans with skills sufficient for them to be in charge of their future and heal negative ideas and notions regarding Africa. Especially their ability to contribute en masse to a global future through tech, design [and]content creation”. Her Maasai travel to space, she’s travelling the world, and we’ve travelled to her. Africultures met Jacque Njeri in her home city Nairobi and asked her about her past, present and future projects.
When did you start making art and how did you come up with the MaaSci project?
I’ve always been drawing, since I was young. In school I would be called around to draw maps or digestive systems, it peaked my interest in art. I also tried to replicate what my brother was doing on his art books such as dream cars and graffiti. Then I studied art in high-school as a course and I went to a school of art and design at university, that’s what I have my bachelors in. And my focus has been for a very long time on design because art is still considered a hobby and not a career you can make a living out of, design is more respectable in that sense here in Kenya. But I got to a point where I felt design was not really utilizing my creative energy so that’s when I started plain art and photoshopping, creating compositions, that was in 2014. Then I stopped and picked it up again in 2017.
Back in 2014 I was just learning how to use Photoshop at my new job. I knew the program but my software of interest was Illustrator, which I was very good at. My first composition was already futuristic, it’s called Afrobot [it was chosen to promote the 2014 Sondeka Festival]. So last year I wanted to see how I could recreate this work with my new skills now that I’ve learnt how to use Photoshop properly. Then I just told myself there’s no need to recreate this art work! That’s where it sparked, the interest to do more images in the same leaning.
You said the MaaSci series was influenced by the Star Wars films and the Tatooine scenes in particular, which is understandable given their filming locations in (North) Africa.
I’m not an avid film watcher, which is hard for me to say because I’m in the industry! But Star Wars influenced me in the sense that the grunginess, the grungy texture, is reflective of Africa in general, and yet it’s futuristic — that concept was very interesting.
What did the series’s success change in your life?
I’ve done a complete 180 in my life after the MaaSci. It’s opened so many opportunities for me. I’ve travelled to places I never even thought of travelling to. Everything happening around the MaaSci was beyond everything I was planning for in my life. To the point where I have had to reevaluate my goals. Because now it’s completely off what I was planning for, I had to take a new direction.
I was working in advertising, focusing on design. So travel would have been for me just for fun or leisure, or just a vacation. Now I’m getting to travel a lot and mostly for the MaaSci, meeting new people with different perspectives on what art means, and what afrofuturism is, what it means.
What is your take on the ‘afrofuturism’ label? Some artists, such as Kenyan film maker Wanuri Kahiu, have been quite cautious with that term. For example, European artists don’t do ‘eurofuturism’, they just do science-fiction…
Haha! It’s interesting that you say that. When you come to anything futuristic, any media or craft, it’s automatically reflected on as a white people’s concept, or maybe Asian. And I feel that labelling it with the ‘afro’ gives it an identity: this is African. And I hope it’s mostly made by Africans for Africans, because it doesn’t take away from futurism as we know it, it just gives it a new identity. So I’m not really opposed to Afrofuturism, I think it’s a great concept because I think as Africans, it’s our responsibility to represent our culture, which is not really palatable I guess for most audiences but it is palatable to us, it gives us a sense of pride. Take the example of Wakanda in Black Panther, it was embraced largely by African audiences.
Kenya is also known for its very creative technology ecosystem, as testified by the M-Pesa revolution in mobile banking, which led some people to refer to the country as the ‘Silicon Savannah’. How do you connect your current work around ICT [information and communication technology]with Afrofuturism?
We’re trying to move away from that name because it takes you back to the Silicon Valley in the United States… I know most people don’t connect ICT to art and afrofuturism. When I was the artist in residence at the Hans Seidel Foundation, in July 2018, I participated in a forum entitled “Decoding the ‘Silicon Savannah’” (the MaaSci series illustrated the initiative), on ICT, and I was there to try and see where ICT and afrofuturism meet and inform people about that. Because the concept of afrofuturism is to plant that seed, that technological ventures are possible for Africans by Africans and ICT is the real core of that because we have to have a keen knowledge of ICT to be able to build these technological objects. We have tech hubs here in Nairobi where apps are invented!
Most people don’t know me as a tech person, they know me as an art person but there are people who get in touch with me for creative ideas, based on my art. Like BilliNowNow, the campaign I am working with in Burkina Faso: the agency discovered me from my art, but I am doing design work for them. It is about engaging young Africans to take charge of their bodies, culture and future by equipping them with skills in design and technology. We plan to do it all over Africa.
There’s something special about Nairobi tech scene, what about its art scene, how would you characterize it?
I feel right now a lot more people are embracing art, and monetizing it, and trailblazers like Wanuri Kahiu or Osborne Macharia are breaking barriers and changing the narrative around our creative art scene. So right now there are so many people coming out, showcasing their work and it’s super interesting. There’s such a great image around our scene and from that you can see how the world is also perceiving Nairobi differently. You can see so many more people coming, just to see what’s going on. So yes, it’s a great time, it’s interesting. I love it!
I think it’s because there are people who have represented it the way it should be. Maybe the content coming out right now is globally accepted. It’s not local, it has a sense of universal vibe around it. I think that’s the reason: the global standards it’s reached, it’s matured, so to speak.
In what sense is Mau Mau Dreams, your current project, different from the MaaSci series?
It’s completely different from any work that I have done or wanted to do, because it’s not afrofuturistic in any way. In a sense it would be afro but looking back, towards the past. It’s the reverse of afrofuturism!
The idea behind the Mau Mau Dreams is that the images we have of those people we call ‘heroes’ show them in a state where they’re not in a heroic element. For example for most people Dedan Kimathi is a very strong character but all the available pictures of him are either in hospital, in court or on his death bed. So he was a hero but not for what we know heroes as, surrounded by elements of heroism, like Achilles who is always presented as a very strong man. So I wanted to give them a new identity as heroes.
This project is something I’ve started and then put a hold on for a bit because it would require more research. The problem I wanted to address (the correct representation of those people as heroes) is the very problem I came across while doing it: the pictures of the people I wanted to represent are not available anywhere online. Someone like Mekatilili, who was the first female leader of the people from the coast, the only available pictures I came across of her were hand drawn. That’s the challenge that I came across as my work is photo-based: I couldn’t use the same images that I wanted to, but I have a feeling that with deep research I could come across more. So I put a hold on it but it’s something that I’ll be back on when I have the time.
You mentioned the extension of the Mau Mau Dreams portraits to female leaders, your next project, The Matriarch, will focus entirely on women…
Yes. Because of the MaaSci series, a lot of questions are popping about whether I’m Maasai but I’m Kikuyu so that’s also why I’m doing the next project, to focus on something that’s also from my culture. Like the Mau Mau Dreams it is photo-based and requires research but it is easier to deliver, so to speak. One thing that is very interesting about Kikuyu culture is that it’s a matriarchal culture. There are tribes and each tribe is named after a woman. I’m going to reimagine the 9 tribes of the Kikuyu placing them in different afrofuturistic environments based on their specific social contribution in society and skills attributed them as per different narratives by community elders.
You said that everything has changed and now your scope is different, so what would you like to achieve?
Honestly I just decided I’m not going to plan anything, and I’m just going to take it as it comes, because maybe what this has taught me is sometimes your plans are too small for what is in store for you but what I plan on doing in the next 10 years is probably being in a position to educate. I’m a very positive person and I believe that you can educate through not just being a conventional teacher in the classroom. You can influence mindsets through changing perspectives. I’d like to inspire people into achieving whatever it is that they set their minds to.
I feel that as we go towards the future everyone becomes similar, we become almost the same thing. That uniformity is witnessed in futuristic movies, where they have factions. I don’t know if you’ve watched The Divergent series? That’s uniformity in the future, it’s boring or bland. You can progress but still have bits of yourself that make you separate and different. I think discarding what you know to embrace foreign concepts is also doing an injustice to yourself: there’s a way our parents did things that we thought was uncool because we’ve embraced the Western idea of doing the same thing. And it’s just that pride I was talking about: doing this is as good as doing that, just a very different way of doing it.
When the MaaSci work was displayed on NowThis Media some comments were amazing and interesting. I like the negative comments because it comes from a very deep sense of honesty, it’s unpretentious, it is what it is. Some people said “Africans still live in huts, what would they know about space?” It’s not the truth so it doesn’t affect me but it shows just all the information that needs to be passed amongst ourselves and everyone.
 Extract from an Instagram post in which Jacque Njeri takes stock on her involvement in the BilliNownow project in Burkina Faso, @fruit_junkie, 17 September 2018 (https://www.instagram.com/p/Bn1ZonaHvQs/).
 While acknowledging that she “appreciate[s]the idea of afrofuturism because it brings together or draws attention to works and pieces of art that (…) bring in ideas of myth, science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and envelops them into one” (TEDxEuston, 2014, https://youtu.be/4–BIlZE_78), Wanuri Kahiu points to the limitations of the label: “We don’t have the luxury of saying things and people not perceiving it as a Black person from a place that you are. We don’t have the luxury. If I was European, I wouldn’t be specifically targeted, they wouldn’t specifically target the place that I am to be able to define what kind of work I’m doing. But that’s different for us, especially us people of African descent. People will target it and they’ll label it and they’ll put it in a little box and say ‘well, that’s black arts’ or ‘that’s African art’ or ‘that’s very specific’. My work is being called ‘afrofuturist’, it’s not being called ‘science fiction’. It’s being called ‘afrofuturist’, to put it in a box where it’s understandable to people that it comes from a black person or it comes from an African person or a person of African descent” (interview by Oulimata Gueye, xamxam.org, 2014, https://youtu.be/SWMtgD9O6PU).
 Kenya’s innovative use of mobile technology is often presented by economists as a perfect example of ‘leapfrogging’: when ‘developing’ countries’ use of technology ends up surpassing the innovation level of ‘developed’ countries. Thus Safaricom’s app M-Pesa (‘M’ for ‘mobile’ and ‘pesa’ for ‘money’ in Swahili), introduced in 2007, allowed two thirds of the Kenyan population to be connected to mobile banking in 2017, when only 5% had a formal bank account (see Samir Abdelkrim, Startup Lions: Au coeur de l’African Tech, Amazon Fulfilment, 2017). Interestingly the image used to illustrate this phenomenon is sometimes that of a Maasai shepherd in traditional garb looking at his mobile phone, a visual combination of tradition and technology which is reminiscent of what Jacque Njeri does in the MaaSci series.
 The Mau Mau movement originated in the 1950s among the Kikuyu people of Kenya. In 1950 the movement was banned by British authorities, and in October 1952, after a campaign of sabotage and assassination attributed to Mau Mau fighters, the British Kenya government declared a state of emergency and began four years of military operations against Kikuyu rebels. By the end of 1956, more than 11,000 rebels had been killed in the fighting, along with about 100 Europeans and 2,000 African loyalists. More than 20,000 other Kikuyu were put into detention camps. Despite these government actions, Kikuyu resistance spearheaded the Kenya independence movement, and Jomo Kenyatta (1897-1964), who had been jailed as a Mau Mau leader in 1953, became the first president of an independent Kenya in 1964 (adapted from Encyclopaedia Britannica).
 Dedan Kimathi (1920-1957) was a Kikuyu Mau Mau leader. He was arrested in 1957 and sentenced to death by hanging while he was laying in bed at the General Hospital Nyeri.
 Mekatilili wa Menza (1840-1924) was a Kenyan woman leader who led the Giriama people (a subgroup of the Mijikenda peoples from the coast of Kenya) in a rebellion against the British Colonial Administration in 1913-1914. She is considered a prophetess among the Giriama, as she drew on the collective memory of the prophetess Mepoho, who had predicted the arrival of the white man and the destruction of Giriama culture. Interestingly Wanuri Kahiu points to Mepoho as an early example of storyteller and seer in her 2012 TEDxNairobi “Afrofuturism and Africa”, in which she shows that afrofuturism is nothing new for Africa and has always been present on the Continent (https://youtu.be/4–BIlZE_78).