Wanuri Kahiu’s brand of art does not want to be defined by policy or agenda. Not by war or poverty or HIV/Aids, and all the dreary things that ‘come from Africa.’ Not because she does not care about such issues, but she wants to produce art about seven-foot tall robots that fall in love, or a pop band that goes to space. She wants to be “fun, fierce and frivolous — like bubblegum.” She called it the AfroBubbleGum Art, in her last TED talk. Her latest movie ‘Rafiki’ became the first Kenyan film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was banned. She is not perturbed because at her very core she sits on happiness; a happy mother, a happy wife, in a happy blended family. She is writing, creating and disrupting. She just got picked as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (another first) and also signed with Gotham Group, a Hollywood production company. She talks to JACKSON BIKO about happiness, creativity and mad robots.
Have you got around to forgiving — you know who—for banning your film?
Well, I don't think it's about forgiveness. For me it’s a pity to underestimate how mature and intelligent we are to watch content as adults or decide whether we want to watch it. I think it's belittling and condescending to tell a nation what they can or cannot watch, especially when that right is guaranteed in our Constitution. My film has no nudity, cursing, underage drinking … it doesn’t meet any criteria for a film to be banned. The idea that we are in a space where we're silencing artistes’ voice because we don't like what they're saying, for me, challenges democracy. The democracy we ourselves voted for.
What does this mean for the kind of work you will be putting out in future?
I will keep putting out the same work especially because we know that this film is being accepted into many other African territories, so it will turn its face.
I loved your TED talk on AfroBubbleGum Art. It spoke to me. I keep quoting it to anyone who cares to listen. What kind of artistic journey have you had to get here?
BubbleGum Art is my thing, man! I have been super lucky. I wanted to do this work when I was about 16, that's really young to fall in love with something. I started as an intern at Raphael Tuju’s studio (Ace Communications) back in the Moi era. TV and content fascinated me. I did a Bachelor’s degree in Management Science, then enrolled for evening classes to learn about script writing. I got a scholarship to do a Master’s degree in UCLA. After that I started making movies like ‘Pumzi’, ‘From a Whisper’, For Our Land’, a documentary about Nobel laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai.
When you want to dip into your well of creativity, where does that come from?
It comes from many different things. For ‘Pumzi’ it came from bottled water, which I hate. (Chuckles). I really hate bottled water because it takes more water to make the bottle than the bottle of water. Anyway, my creativity comes from things I feel uncomfortable with or things I want to express. For instance what I'm doing next is so weird, past ‘Rafiki’, it's so weird …
What are you doing?
I wrote a short story called ‘Rusties’. It's inspired by traffic robots in Kinshasa. ‘Rusties’ were created by this female engineer called Teresa Izee. (Pause) You can't discover them and not write about them if you're a science fiction person. So these robots stop traffic, they wave their arms, they sing to pedestrians, and they're trusted more than the police. My story is about ‘Rusties’ in Kenya. We start the story after there's been like a system weighed and everything is going crazy … this is such a weird conversation, I don't know how you're going to make sense of any of this …(Laughs)
Oh! I will … that’s what I do for a living …
(Laughs) … anyway these robots are making cars crash into each other, everything is going berserk but all through a personal lens of a girl who is going through the most horrible break-up of her life.
So it's also a love story gone wrong?
It's like a love story gone wrong. I really like it, so I'm trying to develop it into a larger piece of content. It was co-written by Nnedi Okorafor.
What's your insecurity as an artiste?
Sometimes I don't know if I'm going to have another good idea. (Laughs). But actually I have one film that I feel like I if I ever did, there'll be no reason to do anything else. It’s really crazy. I have so much fear about trying to do it. I'm worried about what if it's the one? I’m not worried even if it goes badly, but what if I do it, what do I do next? (Laughs)
Where did you pick this artistic side from? Your mom is a doctor, your father is in business. Can the businessman be artistic or can the doctor be artistic?
I’m not sure, to be honest. (Pause) My mom is a genuine believer in happiness. I've never seen anybody who is so devout about working towards their happiness. She's a paediatrician. When she's not doing that she's trying to enjoy her life. I feel that sense of her.
So she gave me permission to be happy and to pursue it. Looking for happiness is an active thing for me. It's not something that you are, it's something that you actively try to be. (Laughs)
So how do you work towards happiness and where do you find it?
I read somewhere recently that you have to define your success early, because you might be successful and not know it. I define my success. It's simple; what does a successful day for me look like? I wake up, meditate, spend time with children, and work. Then I write or create. The idea of a successful day to me won't change.
I was watching the show ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ by Jerry Seinfeld and I think it’s Zach Galifianakis that he asked: ‘if you had money when you were starting out, would you still be as dedicated and committed to creating?’
Definitely. I’m very clear about what I want to do in my career, the films I want to make. All these things are as a result of happiness, not money. They have to bring me joy first. I feel like I’ve started at 38 years of age and there is so much to do.
What do you have to do to make sure that a blended family works?
Aah! Communication, forgiveness and trust. We have four children, two from his previous marriage. The most important thing is to know you're raising children together and that outweighs everything else, even the adult insecurities. I’m grateful to who my husband is, and I’m grateful to who he was in a relationship with, they’re amazing people. It’s been two years (though I’ve known him since I was 18) and I enjoy being married, hanging out with my best friend. I like the children, I have great conversations with them, I like their sense of humour, they’ve just started learning how to tell jokes. (Chuckles)
They have good jokes?
No. (Laughing) They’re awful. They’re the worst.
Children come first and they should have a great relationship with each other and spend a lot of time together. Everybody should be comfortable to spend time in everybody's house.
We see each other once a week at the very least.