Cheryl Opondi as Mekatilili fantasized
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14.11.19)
Richard Allela doesn’t consider himself a fashion designer so much as a professional photographer who has been successful enough to get a call from Canon, the camera people, who wanted to use his photography to promote their newest 2000D camera model.
But having majored in Design at University of Nairobi, it’s no wonder that the costuming he created for the Kenyan models who feature in his current show at Alliance Francaise is captivating.
“The costuming our models wear in the photographs is meant to combine the theme of the exhibition, which is all about ‘African Heroes and Heroines’ from our past with a contemporary flare that can appeal to young people,” Allela says as he introduces me to one of the lovely models who features in the show as a fantasy version of Mekatilili.
Cheryl Apondi looks fantastic in Allela’s photography, wearing an ochre-colored bikini drenched in beads and modestly draped in a bright red Maasai cape which flies gracefully in what one imagines is the wind. That’s because Mekatilili is saddled and straddling a golden-brown horse.
In person Cheryl is just as attractive and regal even though she is missing the face-paint, gold star and chain that dangle from her short-cropped hair on down her forehead. The drama of the photography as well as the beauty of the model and the carefully-staged décor combined to earn Cheryl the place as this show’s poster-child.
But probably the most daring of damsels in Allela’s show is Queen Candace of Ethiopia. Her dress design is not nearly as minimalist as Mekatilili’s; but it’s effective as a strapless, snow-white gown that’s accented with a broad, solid gold belt and accessorized with a series of choker necklaces fashioned in silver and bronze.
Queen Candace the First is said to have been a brilliant military tactician who fiercely defended her empire of Kush riding all manner of ferocious beasts. Again, it’s the fantasy element that Allela accentuates is his photographs of this queen. He’s teamed up with a set of sculptors calling themselves Air Gikosh (also known as Sky Décor) who’ve created Candace’s ferocious lion out of metallic airplane parts that they upcycle and reassemble into everything from wild creatures to fancy home furnishings.
The special effects that Allela creates in Queen Candace’s images are the most elaborate out of all the heroines’ in this show. That’s because he situates her in the midst of battles wielding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. Balancing majestically on her metallic lion, she definitely looks undaunted which apparently, she really was since her legacy lived on several centuries after Candace the First passed away. Her reign supposedly extended from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD.
Yet not all of Allela’s heroic portraits are based on real people. Almost half the photographs in his show are devoted to the mythical King Pino who the photographer claims was so brave he could face off with wild elephants and not bat an eye. Pino was, like Queen Candace, a warrior who apparently went into battle many times. His costuming was minimalist like Mekatilili’s since his six-pack is sleek enough to impress anyone who recalls that historically, Africans felt no shame in walking shirtless or in shukas or even less.
But what makes Allela’s ‘African Heroes and Heroes’ literally come alive is the digitalized process that he calls ‘Augmented Reality.’ It’s not an easy process to explain but it starts by downloading an app on one’s smart phone and then using your phone by aiming it at the image you want to see ‘augmented’. The phone’s focus on the photograph activates a hidden video that is in sync with the app’s energy.
“I am not completely sure I can explain it,” says Allela in all honesty. “Just like I use electricity but I can’t explain how exactly it works.” But what the app enables his audience to do is to interact with his images and thus enhance their appreciation of both his photography and his videography.
“What I do know is we are the first to have a show using augmented reality in Kenya, and we are proud to be the first,” he adds.