The crowd is fizzling out by the time we leave Vineyard, the Sunday night hip hop karaoke venue on Nairobi’s Rhapta Road. The remaining vehicles are still parked on both sides of the road. Before we open the car doors a white Nissan X-Trail approaches, windows rolled down and Boys II Men’s ‘Pass You By’ streams into the street.
We all turn around to see a lady with a rumpled afro making a right turn into the gate of a nearby apartment block, before quickly reversing and going back in the direction from which she came. She must have come from Vineyard, and could be a little tipsy to be playing old school RnB out loud at 4am on a Monday morning, windows rolled down.
Our driver, Msingi, curses as the lady speeds away. He has missed the photo.
The next time we’re out is on Wednesday night. Nairobi’s streets are deserted, save for speeding revelers rushing away from the midweek party. We pull up at the Total gas station at the junction of Valley Road and Argwings Kodhek Road to buy a pack of cigarettes at 3am. The gas station’s service shop is closed and a sleepy attendant is serving sporadic late night clients through a small side window, as if selling contraband.
Yet, instead of heading out to make the purchase, Msingi reaches into a black leather bag under the driver’s seat. As if pulling out a weapon, he pulls out his DSLR camera mounted with a 50mm f1.4D lens. He shoots a series of photographs of the backsides of a Chinese man and an African lady making a purchase and playing a game of late night touch-me-I-touch-you.
He then turns around and, as if to justify his actions, shows me breathtaking monochromatic photos of the couple, before putting the camera away and heading out to make our purchase.
These are the less dramatic nights.
On Friday night we are driving in downtown Nairobi when we find ourselves stuck in a chaotic traffic gridlock, surrounded by matatu touts on the late night hustle. Msingi, as if possessed, insists that he can’t leave the spot without taking photos.
I fidget in my seat knowing the touts won’t approve of their photos being taken, but Msingi pulls out the camera and puts us both in a late night situation.
He takes a series of photos that immediately attract the touts’ attention. They charge at us. Msingi pretends to step on the gas. The vehicle surges forward an inch or so before he steps on the brakes and soon we are surrounded by a group of not so friendly looking Nairobians.
The touts ask Msingi why he is taking their photos without their permission. Msingi keeps his cool and smiles at them, before an inevitable late night negotiation ensues.
The touts want to be paid but Msingi manages to talk them out of their demands, telling them that they’ll even appear in the newspapers. Disarmed and now feeling chatty, one of the touts jokes that he hopes his photo is not being taken because someone is after him. Msingi reassures him that nothing like that will happen.
These are the rare moments in the night where Msingi takes photos from inside the vehicle. Normally, he parks it and tucks his camera under his black leather jacket before going on a street by street hunt for photos.
At 6 feet 3 inches it is hard to miss Msingi, always clad in a leather jacket, jeans pants, Converse sneakers – or in boots and a khaki bucket hat – moving around in the dark with a singular sense of purpose as if pursuing a target in a film noir.
One night Msingi takes a photo of a bunch of mothers from street families on Kenyatta Avenue outside Simmers, one of Nairobi’s busiest pubs. The women see him taking the photo and charge at him armed with sticks and stones, asking for $100.
Msingi embarks on a futile course of negotiation and, when he makes no headway, attempts to walk away. The women scream and catch the attention of three policemen on night patrol. The policemen weigh the situation and send the women away, before asking Msingi for their own compensation.
These are the average nights of Msingi Sasis, one of Nairobi’s most sought after photographers.
Msingi had no idea what he was starting when, every night after his assignments as an events photographer, mostly in the wee hours of the morning, he found himself taking photos as he walked from the event’s venue to the parking lot.
The habit grew and instead of limiting himself to the walk from the venue to the parking lot, Msingi now made deliberate detours, walking further into the night. He only turned back when there was just enough time to drive home and return the silver Toyota Noah van before his mother woke up.
The number of these night photos grew, and Msingi decided to start sharing them on Facebook intermittently. Then one night he stumbled upon a scene which changed everything.
Two women were walking in the rain under an umbrella, and Msingi felt there was something special about them. He took the shot from behind the women and drove home. But instead of uploading old photos as usual, that night Msingi posted the photo he had just taken.
He then went to sleep.
The following morning Msingi logged into Facebook and got 70 notifications. On average he would have between 5 to 10 per login. Something had happened. It was the birth of Nairobi Noir.
The photos remained monochromatic, mostly taken on deserted streets. They were mostly black and white shots with human beings as subjects, but sometimes Msingi took photos representing different elements of city life, devoid of any human representation. The photos had depth in their colour sheds, as if pulling the viewer inside.
A common feature in most of the photos was the uniformity of light, yet some came with blurred edges so that the light focused on the subject that had caught Msingi’s eye.
These effects combined Msingi’s expert use of his cameras – including the ability to take shots from uncomfortable angles – and an eye for detail during editing, which played a major part in the end products.
As the name suggests, Msingi got the noir idea from his film school days where he studied film noir, a genre associated with low key black and white visual aesthetics. So when Msingi took monochromatic photos of Nairobi, it was only natural that he called them Nairobi Noir.
Msingi’s tools of trade remain his multiple DSLR cameras and their interchangeable lenses, all of which he refuses to talk about. He says his philosophy is that tools are only a means to an end and not an end in themselves, reiterating that more emphasis should be put on the craft as opposed to the tools, because it is the man and not the tools that make the art.
His mark of artistic arrival was an invitation to exhibit his work at an African Metropolis event, a project comprising six short fiction films set in six major African cities – Abidjan, Cairo, Dakar, Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi – telling urban tales about life in African metropolises.
At this time, Msingi had no ready portfolio. So he combined his journalism and multimedia skills and turned Nairobi Noir into a stand-alone digital project, setting up pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He then set up the nairobinoir.com website on Tumblr, doing it all by himself.
Msingi was a troublemaker from childhood, getting kicked out of primary school as a seven year old for inciting girls not to return to class after break time. Then in high school he held his head teacher hostage using blades, for threatening to confiscate his sketch books. This saw Msingi attend ten schools in total, being routinely expelled. Once he was kicked out of a school after lasting only a week. The school cited Msingi’s negative influence on its boy scouts, whom he had incited to stage a go-slow.
Msingi’s restlessness hit a crescendo in high school and he opted to drop out of school for a year. Then during his final year national exams, Msingi wrote only his name on the answer sheets of subjects that did not interest him, and gave them back to the invigilators, blank. The reason for doing this, he says, was so that he could get a low average grade and that in turn would not allow him to earn a place on one of the courses his father had in mind for him. All he wanted himself was to become an artist.
Then, as if to compensate for all this mischief, Msingi did close to ten years straight of college. He started off studying printing technology at the Kenya Polytechnic for a year before enrolling for a three year journalism and public relations diploma at the same institution. This is where he had his initial professional interaction with photography.
By this time, Msingi was out of his father’s good books. His father asked him not to use his surname in his artistic explorations, afraid that Msingi would drag the family name into some artistic drama some day. That is when Msingi – whose first name means foundation or origin in Swahili – baptised himself Sasis, foregoing the public use of his original surname, which he never mentions. He also won’t say what Sasis means.
Upon graduation Msingi disappeared from his family, living in an old family house in Nairobi’s Jerusalem estate but staying completely out of touch. During this period, he made money partnering with second hand book importers who assigned him entire shipping containers to sort by genre, after which he could choose at least 200 books of his own as payment. He sold most of these books, making more money than he needed at the time. Msingi also started collecting books, resulting in an eclectic home library with hundreds of books.
One day Msingi’s father went to the house in Jerusalem and slipped a letter under the door, asking Msingi to reconsider his decision to keep away from the family.
Moved by his father’s gesture, Msingi showed up at his father’s office, made a semblance of peace with him and informed him that he had decided to become a rapper. Msingi explained to his father how he intended to make the greatest music videos Nairobi had ever seen.
To his surprise, his father proposed that studying film production would be a good idea in this context, offering to find Msingi a school abroad and to pay for his studies. This is how Msingi ended up studying acting and film production at the Asia Academy of Film and Television in New Delhi, India.
After a year Msingi wrote to his father asking him not to send the next semester’s fees directly to the school. Msingi asked for the money to be sent directly to him instead, citing a misunderstanding with the school administration and promising to pay the fees once the matter was resolved.
His father sent him the money, and that is how Msingi assembled his first production studio in New Delhi. When Msingi’s father learnt what had happened, father and son fell out again. Msingi moved out of the school hostel and rented a house where he did film production.
He lived as an illegal immigrant in New Delhi for a year, and then made peace with his father through an intermediary. Once again, his father agreed to pay for a three year Bachelor of Science degree course in multimedia technologies at the Asian School of Media Studies in Delhi.
Then, Msingi woke up one morning and – without telling his girlfriend – boarded a plane back to Kenya. That was in 2010.
By this time, Msingi’s father wanted nothing to do with him. So Msingi sought out his mother, who allowed him to move into the family’s guest quarters. Under this arrangement, Msingi had a place to eat and sleep, but lacked the means to move around. After a round of negotiations his mother gave him the go ahead to use her vehicle, with conditions.
The only time Msingi could touch the vehicle was when his mother wasn’t using it, meaning that it had to be during the night. This is how he started working as an events photographer at night, and started taking photos as he walked back to the vehicle. That was four years ago.
Msingi is now in his mid-thirties and Nairobi Noir has been going for over a year now.
The project’s growth has seen Msingi interviewed by the BBC and featured on The Atlantic magazine’s City Lab website. Orders for Nairobi Noir prints have come from as far as France and South Africa, pointing to Nairobi Noir’s international commercial prospects.
Yet, the keenest collector of Msingi’s prints is an anonymous curator teaching at the University of Nairobi. Msingi believes she is well versed with the global art market and that her interest in increasing her collection of his prints is a good sign of the artistic value of Nairobi Noir.
The global camera maker Canon was also wowed by Nairobi Noir and invited Msingi for training, besides giving him state of the art equipment to add to his already impressive cache. Another benefactor, who chooses to remain anonymous, has offered to pay for Msingi to study advanced graphic design, a programme from which Msingi recently took a break.
Msingi tells me the world has seen next to nothing of Nairobi Noir yet.
He has over 1,000 never-seen Nairobi Noir photos, some of which he is using to make a photography book. He is still shooting Nairobi Noir photos besides doing new daytime street photography he calls ‘On the Streets of Nairobi.’
He is no longer dependent on his mother’s car. He has built strong partnerships with Canon, the Goethe Institute in Nairobi and PAWA254, a Nairobi arts hub.
Then recently Msingi’s mother left the country, leaving the house to him and his brother. As if he had been waiting for this moment, Msingi has already moved all his equipment and hundreds of books from the guest quarters into the master bedroom, which he now occupies.
He has vacated furniture from the lounge and packed it into one of the bedrooms – alongside whatever else he calls his mother’s stuff – freeing up the house into a bachelor pad. The lounge is now converted into Msingi’s home studio, with lights and tripod stands lying around.
When Msingi informed his mother of these changes, she hit the roof. They had an online fight before she realized she was too far away to mitigate Msingi’s madness. Relieved, Msingi invited his first client who wanted publicity photos with the now popular Nairobi Noir flair.
This was Eric Wainaina, one of Kenya’s leading musicians of the last decade. He showed up with his wife and manager, Sheba Hirst, and spent an entire day shooting. By the time they left, Msingi had tens of images that needed processing. Msingi’s other long time client is writer Binyavanga Wainaina, whose international press is done using Msingi’s portraits of him.
I watch Msingi working in his master bedroom desk, unfazed by the new fame his work has brought him. To him, nothing has changed. He tells me his life story, of shifting across Nairobi’s class barriers. He lived in Jerusalem in what was originally his grandfather’s house and attended the Aga Khan High School in Westlands, two distinctly delineated economic zones.
He tells me how his mind-frame had to shift whenever he left Jerusalem for Aga Khan and vice versa. That in Jerusalem he was a free man while at Aga Khan he had to watch himself. I get a feeling he is someone who had many questions for Nairobi, as he crisscrossed the city every morning and evening, making his way to and from school.
Msingi tells me he sketched the streets of Nairobi in his mind throughout this period and that Nairobi Noir is only a physical manifestation of the feelings, images and aesthetics he’s had inside his head since those high school days.
Eventually, Msingi moved in with his mother at Nyayo High Rise Estate and later with his father in Nairobi Dam Estate, two clear elevations from his Jerusalem surroundings.
Besides smoking joints and passing time with the boys, Msingi did some of Nairobi’s earliest graffiti in these neighbourhoods. He painted a mammoth ‘Trench Town’ on one of Nairobi Dam Estate’s walls facing Langata Road.
For years, anyone using Langata Road saw the conspicuous artwork and in the evenings, Msingi and his boys sat on stones arranged in a straight line under the artwork, staring at Langata Road as if counting vehicles.
Msingi tells me, without flinching, ‘I carry Nairobi’s consciousness.’ I believe him.
He completes the image I have of him as one of Nairobi’s most radical artists when I see him without his bucket cap, his afro unkempt. I ask him whether he is an anarchist or a Marxist, seeing that he never cared for school, never cared for money and shares his art online, free of charge, with what he calls the masses. He tells me he is neither. That he is just an artist.
The last thing Msingi tells me is that he is receiving a new high performance computer ordered from Dubai in less than a fortnight. He says this one is for editing movies, because he now wants to pursue his heart’s other desire beside Nairobi Noir.
(All photos courtesy of Msingi Sasis – nairobinoir.com)
22 April 2015:
Msingi Sasis was arrested last night while taking photographs near a shopping mall in Nairobi. The cause given was that he looked to be surveying the mall with intent, in a situation of heightened security in Kenya. Msingi has since been released although his equipment and cache of photos has not yet been, at time of posting.
Isaac Otidi Amuke lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. He was part of the 2014 Commonwealth Writers creative non-fiction workshop in Kampala, Uganda, and received the 2013 Jean Jacques Rousseau Fellowship from the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany.
(Photo by Msingi Sasis)