As October and another British Black History Month draws to a close, it gives me cause to reflect on the years since its inception in 1987. Culturally and technologically the changes in our society in that time have been immense. However, politically we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards as our basic freedoms and human rights come under constant attack and outrageous acts of prejudice, racism and violence become increasingly flagrant and frequent. Back then in the ’80s, our profiled creative for this month was making his mark as a graffiti artist and rapper as part of London’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Creative roots which fed and nurtured him into one of the most talented, diverse and respected artists and designers of his generation. His integrity to his craft and commitment to his community, especially in encouraging young people, is awe-inspiring. As is his vast body of work encompassing art, design, illustration, photography, film, sculpture and music. But let’s be clear, this is no “Jack of all trades”. His work in each and every discipline he turns his heart and his hand to, is accomplished and features many landmark projects, which continue to influence to this day. So without further ado, let’s pass the mic to Mr Benjamin Wachenje aka Bro Ben.
Source: Azita Firoozyar
Benjamin Wachenje aka Bro Ben. Artist, designer and filmmaker
What’s your background?
I grew up in Harlow on the outskirts of London. Being born in the mid-70s meant that I was just about old enough to be considered a first-generation hip-hop child. From the first time I set eyes on Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Girls video as a young boy I became submerged in hip-hop cultural expression. Although I enjoyed all of the various disciplines of the emerging hip-hop movement I found the spray can art element particularly fascinating and exciting to do. Spray cans only represent a medium but the art form is essentially typography fused with figurative and landscape painting on unconventional canvases. As a result of this early introduction into the combined arts I have continually resisted the notion that you have to specialise in one discipline. During the mid-90s I was fortunate enough to have been the first generation to be offered the opportunity to study for a ‘joint’ honours degree at The University of The Arts’ Camberwell site. So I chose to simultaneously study Fine Art and Graphic Design, where I furthered my understanding of layout, composition, photography, typography, painting and printmaking.
Breakin’ Convention design
How did you get started in your field of expertise?
Prior to studying for a degree I had already satisfied many illustration and design briefs in the late-80s and early-90s. Before having computer access I had learned how to cut and paste using Pritt Stick and a scalpel, delete and tidy work with Typex and do laborious-hand rendered typography with Gouache paint or Letraset transfers. With regards to my illustration style, prior to owning a computer I would collage sheets of coloured paper together to make Illustrations. I got my first Mac in 1997 after volunteering at Alarm magazine. As a reward for my hard work and sleepless nights meeting press deadlines the publisher kindly gifted me an Apple Macintosh Performer 5600 Power PC. I quickly developed a technique to create my collaged paper illustrations in Photoshop. I had my first illustration published in VOX magazine in 1997 and this was followed by regular appearances in Echoes Music Weekly and Touch Magazine. In 1999 my illustration helped to enrich the branding of the DarkerThanBlue digital platform. After two years at DarkerThanBlue I returned to Touch Magazine as art director and also worked as art editor for THE FLY magazine.
What challenges did you face in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
I had hundreds of rejected job applications after leaving university. While being unemployed I would occupy myself with imaginary briefs. I started to take the job application process less seriously and began to take risks with my covering letters which accompanied my CVs. On several occasions I just wrote raps/poems and I was surprised to find that this strategy appealed to some of the recruiting art directors who found this interesting and funny. As a result I became a frequent freelance designer at both Emap and IPC publishing houses. I also underestimated the power of referral. At least 50 per cent of my early work leads came from one friend, Russell Moorcroft. He was comfortable in putting me forward for a number of jobs because I had been at college with his wife Linda, who was able to give a confident character reference about my work ethic. But now the greatest challenge I face is to work as hard towards my own goals as I have in the past towards the visions and goals of my paymasters.
Who and/or What are your greatest inspirations and influences?
Most definitely hip-hop culture has been a great inspiration and has interfaced me with enriching experiences. But professionally my early mentor Everton Wrightshifted my paradigm as to what is possible. I had never come across a black man with dreadlocks who drove a nice car and owned a consultancy and design studio (Creative Hands) in the heart of the City. The walls of the studio were adorned with examples of high-profile work that overlooked the minimalist furniture, wooden floorboards and first generation G3s and iMacs that were dotted all over the loft-styled workspace. What’s more he had staff and was able to pay me. It was a mind-stretcher to say the least. I had never met a black man in Britain who had carved out a living for himself like that and being of black British descent this really resonated with me. Aside from that type of up close and personal inspiration I also take a holistic approach to the arts as a whole, so I might do a painting inspired by the music of Donald Byrd. I might do drawing inspired by Spike Lee’s films. I might make a short film inspired by a poem I have written. I might design a palette for a corporate brand based on a Monet pastel drawing. I also find inspiration in failure, depression and tragedy. I know that I am at my happiest when I am productive. I know that if I am not productive I will be depressed. I know that if I don’t find a lesson in a tragedy then the sorrow may envelop me. I know that if I don’t analyse my failures I will be destined to repeat them, so I stay positive and draw inspiration from life’s beauties and hardships.
FourFourTwo cover illustration
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
I am not a proud person. Sometimes I like my work momentarily on completion but as time passes I can only see how it could have been better. I get very uncomfortable when people praise my work.
What would be your dream job or project?
My dream job would be to direct and produce a feature length film. As an artist without boundaries what better medium exists than film, to harmonise the spectrum of artistic disciplines? Within film you can fuse, literature, poetry, music, sound design, dramatics, theatre, dance, sculpture, photography, typography and graphics… I think the great filmmakers of this period will be remembered and revered in the same way we idolise the renaissance painters of the 15th and 16th Century.
Design for Jonzi-D
Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition.
As previously mentioned Everton Wright. Steve McQueen. His work asks questions in a subtle way. Also he feeds into the growing audience that want to see an unconventional artistic approach to film making. Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss (Non-Format). They don’t follow design trends and they have enough confidence in their vision to establish trends. Graham Rounthwaite. Editorial illustrations were seemingly becoming stagnant before he re-energised the discipline with his fresh fashion-led stylised characters that he placed in familiar urban contexts. Taki 183 and PHASE 2. Fathers of graffiti who were some of the first Street artists to break the cycle of incestuous, elitist art and bring it back to the everyday people. Blek Le Rat. The relatively unknown Parisian stencil artist, whose work inspired and pre-dates Banksy. Following a period of abstract impressionism art was losing its ability to communicate with the masses and could no longer effectively critique power or voice decent. With the emergence of Culture Jamming and Street Art once again artists like Blek Le Rat were able to comment on the social and political climate in a dissident and subversive visual language.
Touch magazine cover
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t follow in my footsteps – create your own pathway. If you try to get to where I am you will be disappointed when you arrive. Never limit your goals to what someone else has achieved, look beyond, focus on personal excellence. Try to be excellent at what is in front of you right now and then move on when the time is right.
Sleeve art for Ty
What’s next for you?
A workout. I have been sitting in front of my computer all day. Not good. You have to paint up close but then view from a distance to find out if your strokes are making sense. When I work out I can reflect on my creative goals from a distance. But for sure I will continue to illustrate, art direct and make space in my schedule to make films.
STEVE MCQUEEN ‘ASHES’ is the Thomas Dane Gallery’s third solo exhibition of the acclaimed British artist and filmmaker’s works. For this exhibition, McQueen will present two new works. The first, entitled Ashes, 2014, is installed as an immersive projection with sound. It was shot on Super8 film with a haunting verbal soundtrack, recently recorded in Grenada. Much of the footage dates from 2002 and was taken by the legendary cinematographer, Robbie Muller. The deceptively simple film was commissioned by Espace Louis Vuitton, Tokyo and shown there earlier this year. At No. 11, we will be showing an entirely sculptural installation ‘Broken Column’, which acts as a pendant to ‘Ashes’. Gallery hours: Tuesday to Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 12pm-6pm. Admission Free. Tel: +44 (0)20 7925 2505. Nearest Tube: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus. For more information visit www.thomasdanegallery.com
HOW GREAT THOU ART – 50 YEARS OF AFRICAN CARIBBEAN FUNERALS IN LONDON by photographer Charlie Phillips presents a sensitive photographic documentary of the social and emotional traditions that surround death in London’s African Caribbean community. Runs from 7 November – 5 December at Photofusion 17A Electric Lane London Brixton SW9 8LA. Visit the website for more information
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL ‘LOOK SEE’ – an exhibition of new paintings oncurrent with the traveling exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, currently on view at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Runs until 22 November at David Zwirner Gallery, 24 Grafton Street London W1S 4EZ. Visitthe website for more information.
A THEATRE OF COLOR: COSTUME DESIGN FOR THE BLACK THEATRE BY MYRNA COLLEY-LEE consists of more than 100 original costume designs, and over 80 production photographs, including full scale production images from several productions portraying the black experience from before World War II through the Pulitzer Prize-winning works of August Wilson. Exhibition runs until 4 January 2015 at Charles H. Wright Museum of African History.Visit the museum’s website for more information
TEMPORARY BUT PERMANENT: PROJECTS The act of being present, and following the construction of a permanent work of art within a public space, is for Hobbs/Neustetter a complex and political condition where one is literally exposed to myriad forces and opinions. A temporary action on the other hand– while no less complex or political, unfolds with a different sense of time in relation to development and production, and often displays more social dexterity regarding audience and site. The works presented inTemporary but Permanent, through their exploration of xenophobia, forced migration and urban degeneration, stand as a particular instances of these symbolic translations. Developed in countries as varied as Martinique, Norway and Mali, Hobbs/Neustetter employed photography, video, mapping and participatory processes in order to present and record such interventions and ultimately effect radical changes in society. Accompanying this selection of works is Hobbs/Neustetter’s post performance video installation of their Tate Modern Commission for the December 2013 Sud Trienniel in Douala, Cameroon.Visit the Museum of African Design for more information
LAST SUNDAYS @ NATIONAL GALLERY of Jamaica features special exhibitions from 11.00am to 4.00pm, with free admission for all free tours and gallery-based children’s activities. There are often special films or special performances and the gift and coffee shops are also open. Contributions to the donation box are welcomed. For more information call 876.922.1561, or visit the website
If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.