Blurring line between digital fantasy and reality

By Harriet James
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
Afrofuturists Timothy Gichuru and Tracy Gitau. Photo/Courtesy
In summary
    • The term afrofuturism was first coined by the critic Mark Dery in 1994, but the concept has been around since the 50s.
    • It is a genre and a way of thinking that blends Afro-culture, science fiction, magical realism, technology, and traditional African mysticism.
    • It is a long-emerging art and cultural movement that views music, literature, films and television through a black lens.
    • The high-tech, utopian world of Wakanda in Black Panther introduced many people to the genre.

Through science fiction, magical realism and surrealism, this couple, TIMOTHY GICHURU, a self-taught digital artist and upcoming lawyer TRACY GITAU are keeping Kenya at the centre of afrofuturism conversation

Harriet James  @harriet86jim 

When Timothy Gichuru and Tracy Gitau met through an online dating app, Tinder, two years ago, they had no idea how far their relationship would go. 

Their first meeting was at Garden City mall along Thika Road after weeks of chatting and getting to know each other.

It is during that first date that Tracy discovered Timothy had a hidden potential and she desired to assist him unravel it.

“He showed me some of his Afrofuturism artwork on his laptop and I was wowed. He didn’t believe that I found his work interesting.

He told me that his laptop did not have enough space and I told him to start posting on Instagram,” recalls the 24-year-old.

Afrofuturism is the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science and technology seen through a black lens.

Seeing an opportunity, Tracy urged Timothy to start a business bringing to birth their Instagram page Benir, meaning blessings in French.

Their first post, however, only received 10 likes, which was quite disappointing.

Tracy says they had not found their niche. However with time, they slowly grasped what they desired to do. 

How they work

But why Afrofturism? “In the next 10 years, digital art is going to be the backbone of most of our day to day interactions in businesses; through contact cards, websites, social media platforms in advertising whether on print or digital media.

It will also be infused in gifts given to those we love or for companies to appreciate their clients,” says Tracy.

 The duo desires to position themselves in capturing this market. While there is illustration and realism kind of digital, their work is more on realism. 

Tim is the introvert and the brains of the graphic designs in the business while Tracy, a law student, is the extrovert and the administrative side of the business.

“Tim is so talented that he doesn’t require assistance when it comes to the art bit. I only come in to do the administrative work such as communicating with clients, responding to emails, Instagram and Facebook.

I also deal with management, which involves sifting through requests to determing what jobs we can take up and what we cannot and which clients to bring on board.

The most hectic part is interpreting what a client wants. I am also constantly looking for people who we can partner with or merge business with to be able to learn and grow,” explains Tracy. 

Initially, Tracy was not so good with the technicalities of the computer and photoshop, but constantly working together and watching Timothy use the tools has helped her hone her skills. 

Timothy says their work is inspired mainly by personal experiences.

“Whether it is social issues afflicting society such as depression, losing someone you love or a job, when you go through our social media pages and look through the photos, you will realise there’s an emotion being communicated.

We are striving to grow a niche by giving our clients what they want, by trying as much as possible to understand their personality and use the dominant personality about them to the art and infuse it into their brand.

“When a client approaches us, we make a point of meeting them in person to get to know the gist of what they desire.

That way, we are able to personalise a product to suit their character,” says the 28-year-old.

Timothy says people who copy paste other people’s work pose a great challenge to their craft. It cripples their creativity. 

“Also, unlike clients abroad, it is challenging approaching clients locally because of the copycat syndrome where clients only want what they’ve seen others do.

We see something and want it done the way we have seen another person do it instead of getting a different inspiration,” says Tracy.

Freebie mindset

As Timothy narrates, Kenyans love free stuff. They get regular inboxes requesting for free samples. “People don’t understand that it takes time and energy to do this, and time is money,” he says 

And when they finally get clients, they still want to negotiate the prices despite the fact that their prices are affordable.

“To get Kenyans to embrace what digital art is and understand the process of creativity is a hard task.

It’s harder for digital art businesses to make it professionally compared to making just one art piece for people to put in their houses.

People actually invest in that one piece than doing a digital branding for their business as they’ll say it’s too expensive,” says Tracy.  

For this reason, their clients are mostly abroad. They are more appreciative of their art and are not hesitant to try something new. 

Benir’s biggest deal so far has been with Runway Dubai, a fashion and runway company based in Dubai.

“We started working with them on their billboard designs and posters when we were barely six months into the business. We still work together to date,” says Tracy 

They received the best digital art award in the Sondeka awards in 2018, the only digital award art in Kenya by creative garage.

In addition to the award, the two have recently been approached on a mega animation deal and will work together with Osborne Macharia, a fellow afrofuturist and mentor.

“This for us was such a humbling calling, to be able to work with such an exceptional and creative artist.

We constantly check on Macharia’s page to see if we are heading in the right direction and he definitely does the same for us,” says Timothy.