Afrocentric genre-bending is in, so is The NEST Collective

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Thinkers, makers, believers is how Nairobi’s wildly creative The Nest Collective describes itself on social media channels. “Those arbiters of Kenyan cool,” is how OkayAfrica affectionately called the Afro futurist multidisciplinary arts collective. This five-year old group of Nairobi-based artists and activists is taking the world by storm. They are a fountainhead of African futuristic style, and their films have been screened in over 80 countries. Their web series Tuko Macho is a breakout hit. In it, a group of vigilantes videotape the kidnapping of criminals and – reality show style – ask viewers if there should be an execution or not? They left a strong impression at the Toronto Film Festival.

But they are not just a film/video collective. They are so, so much more. Their new 367-page fashion tome "Not African Enough" has just dropped, raising serious questions about African fashion. Mixing fashion photography with serious essays, Not African Enough gets straight to the fundamentals, asking: What is African fashion? Is it Dutch wax prints or Chinese real-fakes? Neither of which are even organic to the Continent. "Not African enough" is a derogatory term routinely lobbed at artists, creators and thinkers who step outside the narrow confines of what the world—and Africans—think it means to look, talk like, think like and be an African,” states Sunny Dolat, prominently featured in the book.

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The Nest Collective, though good at everything, excels at film. Starring Ajuma Nasenyana, To Catch a Dream is one of the most luxuriously photographed shorts about the Continent. It also happens to be an excellent entry point into the stylish world of the collective. Further, the soundtrack is just as striking as the visuals. In fact, the quality of films that come out of this multidisciplinary collective almost distract from the amount of sonic excellence that it produces. There are so many Nest Collective films to ponder.

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We Need Prayers, their latest series, premieres January 31 on the Nest Collective Facebook page. It is extraordinary. “A couple debates whether or not to help their next-door neighbors who are being robbed,” is their own description. They debate in whispers, a complex conversation that brings out issues of morality, of our duty to our neighbors as citizens as well as the omnipresent problem of hyper-crime in “Nairobbery.” What is our civic duty, the short asks, against the sinister urban backdrop of crime.


But my favorite video from the collective is When We Are/When We Are Not. Presented at the FNB Joburg Art Fair in 2016, WWA/WWAN is a video exploration of public black stillness. "If you want [people] on your side, your protest must be a … display of respectability,” is how the artist statement begins. “Failing to adhere to these rules can get you killed, but at least [people] will remember you fondly in death.” What happens when Africans lose their voice? What does it look like when black bodies are still? Is non-movement of an African body a symbol of silent protest?

The Nest Collective, to be sure, is no stranger to controversial subjects. In the summer of 2013, The Nest Collective began collecting stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual people. Excavating these stories on a continent as conservative as Africa is an important and serious work. Stories of Our Lives generated an anthology in 2015 that has achieved some critical acclaim. Of that collection Diriye Osman wrote in the Huffington Post "the act of publishing this book in an environment that is hostile to the lives contained within its pages is a radical endeavor, which is amplified by the fact that there is no hectoring at play here … This is an anthology that demands to be read again and again for its sheer ambition, scope and quiet power.”

The Nest Collective also regularly explores the cutting edge of technology. Their current VR short Let This Be a Warning has been screened at the AfroTechFest in London. This festival exists to promote African technological innovation, and the film was created to make an argument. "The Nest Collective's first entry into virtual reality—presented by Electric South and the Goethe Institut as part of the New Dimensions project—Let This Be A Warning explores a future in which a group of Africans have left Earth to create a colony on a distant planet,” is how they introduce the short. Let This Be a Warning is also currently showing at the Beautiful New Worlds: Virtual Reality in Contemporary Art exhibition at the Zeppelin Museum in Germany until April 8th.

The Nest Collective is a small army of black geniuses. Everything they do is interesting at least and genius – as in the case of When We Are/When We Are Not – genius. To ignore The Nest Collective is no longer a possibility.