Interview Mia Dillemuth | Portrait of Nataal founders by Elina Simonen | Artworks courtesy of Red Hook Labs

What is Nataal?

H.J.: Nataal is a new global media brand celebrating African visual arts, fashion, music and society. We’re a London-based team founded by actor Alassane Sy, creative director Sara Hemming and myself as editorial director. We all met through various previous Africa-related projects and found that we all shared a passion for communicating Africa’s successes and so created the platform in September 2015.

Our exclusive stories, think pieces, visual essays and short films profile the brightest designers, storytellers, tastemakers and cultural revolutionaries, both on and off the continent. Meanwhile our curated events, talks and exhibitions offer exploration and debate to intelligent audiences in key cities around the world.

Nataal founders Helen Jennings and Sara Hemming. Picture by Elina Simonen.

In your opinion, what are the advantages of being a smaller media brand?

H.J.: We have the independence and freedom to put out stories that are honest, inspiring and fresh. We can allow our contributors to express themselves fully and develop personal projects that do not have to take commercial restraints into consideration. And we can ensure that all of our output is unique to us. This means we have garnered a niche and very engaged audience, as well as offers of really exciting partnerships with likeminded organisations and events, such as AKAA art fair in Paris, 1:54 art fair in New York, Afropunk festival in London, Design Indaba in Cape Town and Africa Utopia at the Southbank Centre, London.

Your second co-curated group exhibition with Brooklyn creative space Red Hook Labs just opened. How was the process of choosing the artists presented? What were the issues that you wanted to address?

H.J.: Red Hook Labs is a new creative space fast becoming a hub for nurturing talent, so to partner with them is an honour and a natural fit. The 2016 show featured six photographers from across Africa and the diaspora. It was received so well that we’ve curated a bigger, more ambitious show this time around.

New African Photography II features nine contemporary artists whose work engages with present-day Africa. The selected artists will be showing personal bodies of work addressing issues of representation and identity and celebrating fresh perspectives on the continent. Spanning documentary, fashion and portrait photography, as well as video and performance, the exhibition hopes to present modern narratives that surprise, captivate and inspire.

Girma Berta, Moving Shadows II, II, 2017
Girma Berta, Moving Shadows II, IX, 2017

Africa is experiencing a type of renaissance due to growing business and financial investments. The continent has become a beacon for tech entrepreneurship, Kenya and Nigeria are being heralded as the Silicon Savannah. Do you see and feel a momentum developing and affecting in a positive way on the creative side?

H.J.: Africa’s widely documented economic, political and cultural uplift in recent years, which has seen improved infrastructure, education, investment and governance in major markets, and a boom in industries as diverse as tourism, technology, banking and manufacturing, has allowed for an exciting boom in Africa’s creative industries too, including fashion, music, food, film and art. A swelling pride in indigenous innovation as well as a desire to draw on and reinvent heritage aesthetics, is delivering a new generation of proudly African, yet globally minded creatives. It’s no wonder if you consider that now 70 per cent of the continent are millennials. Just look at naija pop in Lagos, the street style scene in Joburg, the innovation hubs in Nairobi – just too much going on!

Kyle Weeks, Mevetwapi Joya. Kunene Region, Namibia.
Kyle Weeks, Uriuavim Kapika. Kunene Region, Namibia.

What makes African photography unique? How has it evolved during the last decade? Who are the rising stars?

H.J.: There is a huge swell of interest in African art and photography right now, as we’re seeing with all of the African-focussed art fairs, galleries and festivals popping up across the globe – AKAA in Paris, Art X in Lagos, Gallery 1957 in Ghana and so on. The photography we’re seeing is as varied as the vast continent itself but what feels fresh to me is that the best artists are not concerned with wrapping themselves up in art world politics and are instead focussing inward to create personal work that speaks to their own experiences and communities.

For some great examples, I have to give those who are showing with us at Red Hook Labs! Ethiopia’s Girma Berta captures the everyday street life in Addis Ababa in vivid, painterly colours.  Kenya’s Mimi Cherono Ng’ok takes photographs of quiet and ephemeral scenes on her travels across Africa that exhibit a sensitive appreciation of displacement and loss. South Africa’s Nobukho Nqaba focuses on highly staged self-portraits that tackle both personal and social issues. Namibia’s Kyle Weeks portrays the Himba people in a contemporary way that blows the usual ethnographic, Western gaze out of the water. William Ukoh is a young Toronto-based Nigerian photographer who creates strong, stylish collages. And Nigerian photographer Kadara Enyeasi uses the body as a canvas to play with form, space and perspective.

Kadara Enyeasi, Head, 2014
Kadara Enyeasi, The man who fell to the earth, 2014

There is a cross-cultural trend evolving also because of internet. People all around the world are more connected than ever before. What are the limits of appropriation in your opinion?

H.J.: It’s a very sensitive topic of course, and understandably so. All I can say is that we should all allowed to be inspired by anything and whoever we want – and that is a healthy thing, which can encourage us to see past borders and labels of ‘the other’. As long as we’re also careful to give due credit where it’s due, it should not cause offense.

European artists have received an exceptional amount of attention in the modern era. Do you see a swift happening now? What are the strengths of African art and fashion design? 

H.J.: Like African art, fashion from the continent is causing a stir internationally right now. Today’s designers are making desirable ready to wear that speak to both seasonal trends and local inspirations while giving new meanings to African textiles and showing a dedication to ethical production methods. These designers are creating an African luxury that values the artisanal, ethical and handmade and breathing new life the continent’s already immaculate craftsmanship.

Three names to know include Nigeria’s Maki Oh, whose indigo dyed womenswear was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and has been worn by Michelle Obama, Côte d’Ivoire’s Loza Maléombho whose powerful tailoring has caught the eye of Solange Knowles, and South Africa’s Maxhosa by Laduma, whose unisex knitwear is inspired by Xhosa beading and won a Vogue Italia Scouting for Africa prize.

Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, #3 Untitled, 2015
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, #7 Untitled, 2015

What’s next?

H.J.: Nataal hopes to continue on our natural progression, host a major exhibition in London and go into print with an annual journal.


All images are from the Nataal’s co-curated group exhibition with Brooklyn creative space Red Hook Labs in New York.

Portrait of Nataal founders Helen Jennings and Sara Hemming by Elina Simonen


Nataal: New African Photography II