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The Nest Collective: Merchants of dreams

We have always been and will remain merchants of dreams.

The Nest Collective is a multidisciplinary Kenyan squad whose work spans across film, music, fashion, visual arts and literature with collaboration at the heart of their practice. The Collective has been creating art, breaking boundaries and inspiring new modes of seeing since 2012. Their work has travelled from Nairobi across the world, securing them multiple accolades and exhibitions along the way — Berlinale Teddy Awards, Best of Africa and the African Diaspora Award, Rapid Lion  (The South African International Film Festival) and Best Original Music (Berlin International Fashion Film Festival) among others.

Johannesburg writer, Nkgopoleng Moloi had a conversation with Nest member Njoki Ngumi about the dynamics and output of this long-standing creative relationship.

Q) Can you tell us about the Collective? What does the team look like and how has that changed since inception?

We’ve been making things together since late 2012; thinking, creating and building together. Some things have changed, like a couple of our members have left to pursue other projects and works. We are also now creating in the event and experience space, and doing more physical installations, performances and museum and gallery work. This is a real shift from when our work was primarily digital. We’ve also grown in skills and been able to transfer and share knowledge with each other.

We keep joking that we attend the University of The Nest, because we truly would be very different people if we had not encountered and worked with each other in the ways we have. Some things have remained the same; we remain multidisciplinary even though we have forms we are very fond of and keep returning to – essentially fashion, music and film.

Q) In terms of film, what stories are you telling as a Collective?

We’ve always been interested in stories about who we are, and which allow people who are familiar with our multiple conditions – the fraught living in African cities, youth, gender roles in flux, feminisms and queernesses and the place they fight for and will always have in the world, spiritualities and ways to express them – to see themselves. We’re becoming more playful with narratives, worlds and characters as we go. We remain and always want to be merchants of dreams – but games can be very deep and serious things too, and we do not ever want to forget that.

Q) Can you tell us about the film industry in Kenya, or more precisely in Nairobi?

The film industry requires far more investment than it is currently receiving. There are plenty of brilliant treatments, pilots and outlines hiding in folders of laptops and computers all over the city. Many people have many beautiful stories that have yet to be heard and seen —these are stories that audiences are hungry for. The industry can be very extractive in its hunt for profit, while storytellers are far more interested in sustainable showcases and distributions.

We’re fascinated by how much Africans seem to love romantic comedies; every city and metropolis has a few definitive works in this genre. Thrillers, especially those with elements of crime, are also on the rise. There is a growing interest in collaborations across borders—as an example, Nigeria-Kenya collaborations are growing in numbers. Nollywood’s access to investment, large audiences in Nigeria and beyond, savvy distribution networks, a diaspora ready to spend on good content as well as rapid increases in quality are all factors causing a ripple across the continent. We’re also excited by the number of web-series that live on Youtube and Facebook and how much of that work is being created in different African languages.

Q) Stories of Our Lives (a body of work around queer Kenyan narratives) was shot in 2014. What was the reception of the film by the public and do you think attitudes around queerness have shifted since then?

The reception was quite mixed. Some audiences were very excited about the film but we also had folk who wanted nothing to do with it. This range of attitudes has pretty much remained the same: for all the shifting and evolving homophobias we still have people who find ways to watch the film; hosting quiet illegal screenings in their homes – which is a thing Kenyans do for anything anyone tells them not to watch.

We’re generally not a people who take kindly to random bans on behaviour. Some are buying the book, which is in its second edition including more stories. More libraries, universities, communities and organizations ask us about it. So, you find that the loudness of the antiLGBT+ folk meets this fiercely private and relentless desire for knowledge and access, which keeps everything very interesting.

We explored a future in which a group of Africans have left earth to create a colony on a distant planet and respond to the arrival of an uninvited guest.

Q) Has the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology changed the ways in which you make films?

We enjoyed working with VR for our short “Let This Be A Warning”, in which we explored the autonomy in deciding who gets to enter Black worlds. The starting point was the question; If black worlds exist(ed), would you be welcome in them? We explored a future in which a group of Africans have left earth to create a colony on a distant planet and respond to the arrival of an uninvited guest.

We’re excited to see what will happen with virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences and the interaction with audiences. It would be great for audiences to have more ways of sharing their experiences (viewing devices can be awkward and isolating) and more ways to engage physically as well. The gaming industry is likely to be the first to crack this for everyone else. We have not really changed how we write or shoot in response but rather we’re growing our literacy within this new form ⁠—an experience that is both fun and illuminating.

Q) The films that you make are very local (to Nairobi) and yet they have an international appeal, how have you been able to achieve this?

It is a humbling thing to hear! We never take audience reactions to our work for granted, because you never know. People have spent years on set and released pieces that just don’t work, so every time our audiences like our work we are thrilled and relieved. Maybe it is because humans are all deeply fascinated by each other and by the world and that most themes⁠—love, betrayal, joy, longing and otherness ⁠— transcend language and culture. In addition, we make work that is deliberately about mapping power; how that power travels, who it affects and why. The conversations that are possible about that are endless.

Q) How do the other forms of creating (music, fashion and others) influence the films you make?

The different forms interact amongst themselves in different ways. In a regular film, for instance, fashion plays a role through experimentation with wardrobe of the different participants, but in a fashion film, fashion is the main character. A similar thing happens with music; the songs play leads in a music video. It is all interactions in different ways at various levels depending on which one is the primary form at the time.

Q) What can we expect from the Collective? What projects are you currently working on?

There’s a lot! We will be doing more exhibitions, installations and performances. We’re finalising details on a couple of comics, which have been great to work on because we were able to collaborate with two illustrators from outside the Collective. We’re also doing more events and experiences including the women-centric gig Strictly Silk coming up in Nairobi soon. We’ve just released a new EP called Blue Ticks and Kisses on Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Deezer and Spotify. We’ll also be back on set very soon, to work on more film. We are really excited about that – so stay tuned!

This interview by Johannesburg writer, Nkgopoleng Moloi, comes from a partnership between Let’s Be Brief and People’s Stories Project (PSP) – part of the British Council’s arts programming across Africa.

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