Capturing African heritage


Rich Allela is a photographer and filmmaker. He is the founder of Picha Images. PHOTO | POOL | NMG


  • A master at “documenting Africa’s disappearing culture”, his work is a powerful blend of modern and traditional life. But it’s mostly an ingenious play between colours, lighting and deftness.

The story of Rich Allela is quintessentially the story of every artist in 2020. The multiple award-winning photographer and filmmaker admits quite-matter-of-factly that the Covid-19 crisis has torn through the core of art, devastating incomes and ruining business prospects.

Like millions of creatives globally, the better part of his 2020 has been about clutching at whatever straws to survive.

Exhibitions have been few and far between, enquiries for photography nosedived and with virtually no events happening, this year has been almost like living through a terrible dream, he says.

I ask him right off what the most difficult conversation with Lisa Christoffersen, his agent and manager, has been. More than anything else, difficult talks have been an essential part during this period.

‘‘Our talk has mostly been about staying afloat in spite of very little business coming our way. It’s centred around developing other revenue streams. Lisa is the person I needed most to navigate this dark stretch. She’s been very supportive.”

Things, though, are now looking up. Galleries have reopened and Rich is fully back to work at Lotus Plaza, the home of Rich Studio Africa. After a lull, enquiries are coming in. The dark cloud may just have passed.

From the irresistibly stunning Candace of Ethiopia — who “humiliated Alexander the Great” at battle — to King Pino, a cryptic depiction of Luanda Magere, and beautifully bejewelled Maasai women, Rich’s propensity for “cultural photography” is peerless.

A master at “documenting Africa’s disappearing culture”, his work is a powerful blend of modern and traditional life. But it’s mostly an ingenious play between colours, lighting and deftness.

To him, culture is as much a niche as it’s a passion. “Elements of culture fascinate me. Taking photos is my way of preserving our rich heritage,” he says.

Then there’s fire, a prominent theme in his dramatic photos. A couple emerging from an inferno. A woman circled by a ring of devastating flames. And even the devil.

Why fire? “Fire, as a natural element, is both destructive and constructive. I use it to show its contrasting powers and to lend images potency.”

His photography has been featured by CNN and BBC, besides winning him prizes locally and abroad.

Also on show at Lifestyle Nairobi Gallery, Rich’s work targets both the high-end and budget buyer. Large portraits sell at Sh81,000 (archival paper on board), or more, while smaller frames (A4 size) go for Sh2,000.

Every photographer has a dream shot. For Rich, it is the community living near Erta Ale, an active volcano in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

“No photographer has convincingly captured the local people against the volcano. I’d love to be the one to do it,” he says gleefully.

So, what has photography done for him? “It gave me family,” he replies, explaining that he met his wife Ella through work. “Photographers are the only people women listen to without defiance,” he jokes giggly.

Business may have nearly torpedoed, but away from work, his life is a fairytale of joy and personal conquest. He and Ella welcomed their firstborn son, Elly, three weeks ago. Rich is unable to put a smile away from his face as he talks about his young family.

What was it like to welcome a baby at a time the world is on its head? He smirks again. ‘‘It’s been an adventure.” In many ways, their son’s birth has neutralised the anxiety that has characterised this year.

When I ask him what kind of conversation he would have with his son if he could, the beam is replaced by an expression that’s hard to place. ‘‘To go after what he pleases. To never stop at anything.’’

Rich doesn’t think the story of the pandemic has adequately been told. I ask him how differently he would tell it through photography.

‘‘When my mother came to see her grandson, she was masked up throughout. While it was understandable given the circumstances, this was very unusual. Perhaps no photo would have told the story of our present time better than the photo of her holding him with a mask on,’’ he says.

Through these photos, he believes Elly will easily imagine the turbulence of his birth year when grows up.

I’m curious to know what success is to him. What are the metrics and does he consider himself successful?

“Yes, I’m a successful professional and family man. My freedom, family and living my purpose are my measures of success.” The are also the pillars of his life, he tells me.

For most photographers, nothing is as exhilarating and as calming as seeing the world through their lenses. It’s a powerful moment of control. I wonder what power his lens gives him.

“Freedom,” he exclaims, “the freedom to interpret my environment through shots. Nothing beats that.”

His work is hardly a product of impulsive motivations. Spontaneity doesn’t feature anywhere. “I must plan and visualise the photo long before I’ve picked up my camera. That takes time.”

On the genre he wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, Rich quickly says any sad situations. He wouldn’t take funeral photos, for instance. And this has nothing to do with his fear of death.

He explains: “I like to capture life. Its vibrancy captivates me. To me, where there’s no life, there’s no photography.”

As we wrap up, I ask him if Kenyans are buying photos.

“Finally, yes. Our people have discovered that beyond aesthetics, art is a durable investment. We’re at a good place.”

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