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Queen Bee!

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The night we go to press with this issue is when Lupita Nyong’o jets in from Kampala to Johannesburg for the premiere of her new film, Disney’s Queen of Katwe, releasing in South Africa mid-October.

Getting a phone interview – even two exclusive email quotes – from this African A-lister, despite relentlessly pursuing her PR machinery for months, has proven painfully difficult.

But this is Lupita, the African who brought home the best supporting actress Oscar for her turn as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Her Cinderella-esque pose with the Oscar statue in the billowing blue – a color she famously said reminded her of Nairobi – Prada dress is still fresh in social media memory.

This spring, she was seen in Eclipsed, which made its Broadway debut and was written by another famous African daughter, Danai Gurira, the playwright more popular as the actress in The Walking Dead.

Eclipsed, a story about hope and activism starring a cast of all-African women, saw Lupita scoop the best Broadway debut performance award at the 2016 Theatre World Awards. The play explores the journey of four women drawn together due to the turmoil in their home country, Liberia.

Referring to her portrayal in Eclipsed, The New York Times said: “The superb Lupita Nyong’o is one of the most radiant young actors to be seen on Broadway in recent seasons.”

The Mexican-born Lupita, who was raised in Kenya, plays a part closer to home in Queen of Katwe, as Harriet, the strong-willed mother of Ugandan child chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi.

The coming-of-age film, which is a true story, set in Katwe and Kibuli in Uganda, is directed by Mira Nair, who has straddled world cinema with such memorable films as Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Nair has had a home in Kampala for the past 27 years and is the founder of Maisha Film Lab, a film school for East Africans.

In a press statement, Nair says the role of Harriet was written for Lupita, who she has known for years.

“I thought of Harriet as a young Mother Courage, and that is the strength and beauty that is in Lupita,” says Nair.

Lupita was an intern at Nair’s production company Mirabai Films in New York before she shot to fame with 12 Years a Slave. The actress had reportedly broken down and cried after reading just 10 pages of the script of Queen of Katwe.

“It was the first time in a while that I’d been so enlivened, inspired and challenged by a role I was considering,” says Nyong’o.

In its review of the film, The New York Times, said: “The sight of well-fed, well-dressed schoolboys beaten by a girl — a poor girl, at that — would be satisfying even if Queen of Katwe were a less vivid and engaging movie.”

In the interim leading up to the film, Lupita had also essayed roles in Non-Stop with Liam Neeson, The Jungle Book and played the voice of 1,000-year-old space pirate Maz Kanata in Star Wars: A Force Awakens, which released winter 2015.

And there have been other ‘appearances’. Lupita recently posted a video on her Instagram account showing off her freestyle-rapping skills, much to the mirth of her 3.1 million followers.

Lupita is also the Global Elephant Ambassador for WildAid, a wildlife conservation group focusing on protecting animals from being poached.

While Kenya banned the ivory trade over 20 years ago, WildAid says close to 33,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa for ivory. Lupita joined WildAid, for the campaign ‘Poaching Steals from Us All’, in July 2015, to advocate the protection and survival of elephants. It’s a role she takes seriously.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights says it has been amazing working with the star.

“Lupita is such a powerful presence on-screen, and this power has translated so beautifully to this campaign. She is truly passionate and committed to saving Africa’s elephants,” says Knights to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

Lupita had recently also gone back to her roots in Kenya for the October cover of Vogue. Needless to say, the 33-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate is leaving a trail as the beacon of hope for other young women in her country.

Moses Wafula, the principal of St. Mary’s School Nairobi, where Lupita was a student, calls her the school’s “heroine”.

“St. Mary’s School is very proud of Lupita. It’s a joy even to us who have ridden in the fame she has brought to the institution. Her success is a brand to our school and thence, many students have joined this institution since her Oscars’ triumph,” he says.

Attests Vivian Onano, an activist and youth ambassador for UN Women, who hails from Kisumu county in Kenya where Lupita is also from: “Lupita is a great role model and an inspiration for many young African women, me included. Despite her success, she has maintained her authenticity and stayed grounded. She has boldly showed us that you don’t have to conform to Hollywood’s definition of beauty to be successful in the global space. She acknowledges her roots and has used her platform to create opportunities for other young ladies who aspire to be like her.”

Kenyan photographer Lyndsey McIntyre, who knew Lupita before she became famous, was invited by the actress to a film she had produced on albinism, a subject McIntyre says Lupita is passionate about.

“The documentary was incredible… She always had that star quality about her even years ago but was humble, intelligent and very charming. I have no doubt Lupita is still humble and charming, she is just one of those types of people I think will manage to keep her feet on the ground,” she says.

“Like most people who acquire that level of recognition, she is exceptional, a one in a million. She has many gifts — her beauty, her intellect, her tremendous talent and her lovely personality but she was also privileged in her upbringing and studied her craft in the US when she was signed by obviously an excellent agent. She was not plucked out of a village in rural Kenya or even out of Nairobi,” says McIntyre.

In Kenya, Lupita’s parents have a reputation of their own. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, is a professor of political science and senator of Kisumu county. Onano, who knows Lupita’s mother Dorothy (see interview on previous page), calls her: “A quiet lady though a great force and a doer; a very beautiful woman full of grace and a big heart.”

It’s the same grace and creative zest Lupita brings. Her hairstylist Vernon François, who created the brown and blue head wrap for her interview on American talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live in September, tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA working with Lupita is a fantastic creative process.

“We have a very productive relationship because we are both always full of ideas and collaborate well. Selecting the material for every head wrap that I design for her, is always a team effort between Lupita, her stylist and myself,” he says.

Fans can now look forward to Lupita playing Nakia in Marvel’s Black Panther, which will cast her with The Walking Dead’s Gurira; the film’s expected to be released in 2018.

She is also in the upcoming much-awaited film adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah.

Africa is watching.

 

‘She Will Continue To Break Through Ceilings For People of Color’

SANTA MONICA, CA- MARCH 01: Actress Lupita Nyong’o (R) and mother Dorothy Nyong’o attend the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach on March 1, 2014 in Santa Monica, California.(Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)

Lupita’s mother, Dorothy Nyong’o, is an advocate for women and girls and whose work with the Africa Cancer Foundation speaks for itself. Known in Kenya for her commitment to cancer patients and cancer research, she also owns a public relations firm, 7th Sense Communications:

Do you travel often with Lupita?

I occasionally travel to meet Lupita at work. She takes her work very seriously. She has a very high work ethic and does whatever is necessary to give it her very best. At the same time, she likes to enjoy her work. She is playful and builds in enjoyment of the process and of the moment. She has always done so.

How do think Kenyans have responded to Lupita’s success?

Kenyans generally own Lupita’s success. They have personal pride in her achievements and feel she belongs to them. They are inspired by her and have a lot of goodwill towards her. She is a good role model for many. People often ask me, ‘how is our daughter?’

What do you think the future entails for her in Africa?

Lupita is already a role model in Africa and worldwide. She is an influencer and a leader in her craft. She will continue to break through real and imaginary ceilings for people of color and for women all over the world. She will continue to create opportunities for Africans and people of color, worldwide.

 

 

Arts

The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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