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Indigenous Artists Around the World: Jacque Njeri

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Welcome to our Indigenous Artists Around the World series, which features both popular and little-known artists from the hundreds of indigenous communities across the globe. 

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 370–500 million indigenous people in the world, spread across 90 countries. Though they can be found in all geographic regions and represent 5,000 different cultures, many of us know precious little about their rich lives and cultures. Well, what better way to expand our knowledge of these communities than through their artists?

Today, join us as we kick off our series with the work of an amazing Kikuyu artist from Kenya, Jacque Njeri.

From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri

Welcome to our Indigenous Artist series, Jacque. Thank you so much for being here. Let's start off with a bit of background. What indigenous group do you belong to? 

I am a Kikuyu born in Kenya.
From the series Genisis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series Genesis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri

According to the United Nations, Indigenous peoples created and speak the majority of the world's 7,000 languages, but these languages are under threat with one dying every two weeks. Has your group retained its native tongue and how important is it that you maintain your own language? 

Maintaining my native tongue gives me an identity and sense of belonging. It connects me to my history and my culture and informs my work. 
For example in my latest work I draw on the Kikuyu myth of Gikuyu. The myth describes the origin of the tribe where Gikuyu the founder of the tribe was given land by God. While he descended upon it, a woman appeared and her name was Mumbi. Together they have more than nine daughters. The exact number is not mentioned as a survival mechanism for the continuity of the tribe. For example, if there was an attack and the known number was killed the rest would survive and this would ensure the continuity of the tribe. 
Each daughter's name was used as the identity of each clan. They were the head, making the system matriarchal. Each clan had its own attributes inherited from their mother. For example, if the daughter had a singing ability it was believed that her clan would make great singers and their duty was to entertain when there were ceremonies in the community. 
In my new series, Genesis, I use the attributes as the embodiment of each artwork in a  futuristic interpretation of a matriarch.
From the series Genisis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series Genesis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya, Jacque Njeri

What a beautiful story and a good place to tell us how and why you got into art making?

I have always been interested in art for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I would always get in trouble for filling up my books with doodles. In high school I took art classes and that’s where my interest really piqued. I went on to pursue a Bachelors in Art and Design at the University of Nairobi and graduated in 2013. Art for me is a communication channel from the divine to the world and it comes in many forms. Life imitates art and the world is largely shaped by it.

Tell us a bit about your work, your style and what motivates you.

I am a digital artist who primarily uses Adobe Photoshop to create Afro-futuristic work. Afro-futurism is my simulation of an African future. I think projecting a future requires high imagination because it's not a derivative of anything that we see day to day as opposed to historical work which references what we have seen before. It's almost abstract in that sense and that's what makes it interesting. There are tons of myths and legends from Africa that have yet to be told to the world, for example, the myth of Gikuyu which is a story of creation from a Kikuyu perspective.
From the series Genisis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series Genesis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya, Jacque Njeri
MaaSci  is another example of Afro-Futurism in my work. It is a digital collage series that explores a fellow indigenous people of Kenya, the Maasai, in Sci-Fi environments. 
From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
The Maasai live in the savannah and that's the image associated with them but the project imagines the Maasai in outer space in diverse backgrounds.
From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series MaaSci by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri

Tell us a bit more about the themes and issues you explore using this Afro-Futurist style?

I explore culture, feminism and female empowerment. As a woman, addressing women's issues comes naturally. It's an expression of what I go through and what I see women going through and a projection of narrative change. 
Despite being a forward-thinking country, pose the question 'When will Kenya be ready for a woman President?' and the vile comments that arise from men and even women themselves gives a clear impression of the overall condition of women in our society. This of course stems from the cultural idea that women are to be led and lack the emotional stability to take on some roles.
From the series Genisis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya Jacque Njeri
From the series Genesis by Kikuyu artist from Kenya, Jacque Njeri

What was the best advice you can pass on to aspiring creatives?

The most critical advice I can give to other artists is this: Create every day! 

What a way to kick off our new series. Thank you so much, Jacque, for taking the time to answer my questions and share your stunning and inspiring work with us. You can see even more of Jacque's work on her website, jacquenjeri.com, and look out for more intriguing articles highlighting other talented indigenous artists around the world.

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