Acclaimed artist and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu shatters convention around African representation—by celebrating art that’s made for the joy of it. Kahiu creates work in her own genre, called “AfroBubbleGum”: an aesthetic mash-up of Marvel’s Black Panther and a candy store. In talks, she shows why “fun, fierce and frivolous African art” is a political act: seeing African citizens as healthy, financially stable, and fun-loving shows their humanity in refreshing, necessary ways.
“When I present my work somewhere, someone will always ask, "What's so important about it? How does it deal with real African issues like war, poverty, devastation or AIDS?" And it doesn't...It's just fun, fierce and frivolous.”— -Wanuri Kahiu
“My work is about Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or about seven-foot-tall robots that fall in love. It’s nothing incredibly important. It’s just fun,” says filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. And that particular, necessary attention to fun has landed her some amazing new projects—like teaming up with Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown to adapt and direct the celebrated YA novel The Thing About Jellyfish as a feature film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. She directed Look Both Ways, a romantic comedy-drama, for Netflix. And if that weren’t enough, Kahiu is collaborating with acclaimed Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor to co-write the upcoming series adaptation of sci-fi legend Olivia Butler’s Wild Seed, set to star Academy Award-winner Viola Davis.
In her vibrant, optimistic talks, Kahiu explains why showing fun is a political act in African film, when happiness is so often seen as a privilege. It’s important to find this balance in representing African stories, she says. We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about poverty, war and devastation. Kahiu asks us to rethink the value of “all that is unserious,” and to make and support art that captures the full range of human experiences.
Kahiu is the co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media company that creates “fun, fierce and frivolous African art.” Her second feature film, Rafiki, was selected for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it screened to acclaim. In 2019, it won both Best Achievement in Editing, and Best Film in an African Language, at the Africa Movies Academy Awards. She produced the TV documentary For Our Land about Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai for MNET, a pan-African cable station. Her science-fiction short Pumzi premiered at Sundance, and won Best Short Film at Cannes. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, won five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. In 2019, Kahiu was named one of TIME’s “100 Next”, the magazine’s inaugural list putting a spotlight on rising stars shaping the future.