We are kicking off Kinsmen's new interview series, KINETIC with Olivia Lifungula. Congo-born, Belgium-raised, her work explores intimacy, beauty and the construction of Black femininity in the arts and media.
You were born in the Congo and raised in Belgium, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I was definitely that kid that was fascinated by MTV and watched a lot of music videos, I was always being told off for watching too much TV. I also religiously collected magazines and constantly looked at them and I liked to believe that that's where my love for image-making came about.
What sort of education did you have, was creativity a focus?
Like every immigrant kid, my parents really cared about my sister and I getting a very serious education, so I studied International relations and politics. I believe my mother still hopes that I will go back for my master degree. I didn't start taking photos until I graduated from uni, back then I still didn’t think this could be a career because I didn't grow up seeing anyone that looked like me or was from where I’m from doing it.
"London and most importantly the people I meet here inspire me everyday. Living here constantly feels like a crash course of what the world has to offer in terms of art and culture."
When did you realise photography and filmmaking was your path?
Moving to the UK when I was 21, living in East London at the time where everybody was a photographer, clothing designer or an artist of some sort definitely gave me the confidence I needed to just go for it.
We were all kind of struggling but the friends I made here definitely put the batteries in my back and made it possible.London and most importantly the people I meet here inspire me everyday. Living here constantly feels like a crash course of what the world has to offer in terms of art and culture.
The friends I have here come from so many different parts of the world and have so much pride in who they are. I have the same pride in my heritage and that takes up space in both my everyday life and my work.
What were your early influences?
Discovering Corinne Day’s work and life story was definitely a game-changer. She's created the most intimate work that felt very soft, for lack of better words. I have obviously grown as my own person since and found many other inspirations but I think I will always want my work to feel feminine, soft, intimate and real.
How do your own lived experiences influence your work?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to romance and its ability to allow me to escape and explore human emotions.
There's always been a constant longing and idealisation of love in both my work and personal life and unfortunately as I grew older, I realised that nearly every love interest in films that I loved and shaped so much of my vision never included people that looked like me.
As an image maker I’ve always felt called to forge my own path and create more of what I wanted to see in the world, so I’m always super intentional about creating work where you see black people, hugging and kissing.
I want to share a different perspective of our experiences as human beings and showcase black love in a way that it is rarely represented in the media, highlighting our vulnerability, our intimacy and our joy.
"I want to share a different perspective of our experiences as human beings and showcase Black love in a way that is rarely represented in the media, highlighting our vulnerability, our intimacy and our joy."
At what point did you feel your work was being seen and understood?
I have seen a lot of interest towards my work this past year especially, I think it's due to a lot of different factors starting with me working my ass off and creating work that feels real to me, but also the Black Lives Matter movement had a huge influence on people reaching out and commissioning me. It's been both validating and frustrating because I don't want to only be looked at through the lens of Blackness and be someone's little diversity hire, that's when I feel the least seen and understood .
You recently showcased your work as part of The Self Portrait at Home by Ronan McKenzie - what did this mean for you?
The exhibition titled the Self-Portrait was a celebration of Black female photographers, demonstrating the nuance of not only the stories we tell, but the people behind the lens telling them. As a photographer, being a part of this beautiful and historic moment as well as having my work in such a beautiful, inclusive space, next to other insanely talented Black women has been the honour of my career so far. As a woman who has often struggled with seeing myself, it was a great moment of self discovery and confidence .
I felt beautiful and empowered throughout the whole process and now get to keep that feeling with me forever.
"I like having these round table conversations and talking about everyone's ideas, so much of what I do is based on collaboration I don't think I could create in any other way"
Can you describe your process to me to create - where does it start?
I’m always looking at films that I love. I look at other people's work too, I always get inspired by the work my friends are doing in their different practices. I like having these round table conversations and talking about everyone's ideas, so much of what I do is based on collaboration I don't think I could create in any other way.
While on set music plays a big part in helping me feel good and create my best work, my friends who I closely work with could tell you that I’m not allowed to select the music on the set because the vibe always gets super mellow but I like things that way. Thankfully there's always a lot of laughter too, which helps set the atmosphere and make everyone including my subject feel at home.
When you work, is there an improvisatory element or are shots carefully staged?
I’m most definitely a planner and spend a lot of time looking at references and creating mood boards before all my shoots but my favourite images always end up being that little intimate and spontaneous moment between my subject and I that I didn't see coming .
Do you think that art should have a social or moral purpose?
Yes and no. The lack of representation while growing up has definitely impacted the art that I make today, working in an industry that often only uses us as props. I feel called to help shift that narrative by taking up space and telling our stories in ways that are beautiful and true to us either through film or photography but most days I just want my work to be someone's opportunity to escape and feel joy. That’s what art was to me as a child so ideally that's what I would want people to feel while looking at my work.
Do you have a favourite piece of your own work?
My first short film At Dawn You Leave will always be my baby. It was the most intimate project I’ve ever worked on at the time because I had to allow myself to be vulnerable in my work and draw inspiration from my own experiences and that's what I have been doing ever since. Creating work about love and ultimately heartbreak which I was dealing with at the time felt super therapeutic and really helped me validate my feelings and gave me hope.
How would you like to see your practice develop in the next few years?
I want to make more films, good ones. I’m just kind of going through a very slow process at the moment, learning, writing and feeling really scared about it, which is how I know it's the right thing to do.
Could you share three things which currently motivate or inspire you?
A Good Indian Wife, by Anne Cherian. The first novel I read when I was teaching myself English almost 10 years ago. I read it again a couple weeks ago and it's definitely still a favourite.
Whitney Houston’s My love is Your Love album has been on repeat since I was about 8 years old, the songs on there always makes me think of my mother, it also makes me want to fall in love too, I don't think I will ever get tired of it.
Oasis: Supersonic – a documentary about the rise (and fall ) of Oasis and all the drama between Liam and Noel. It's on Netflix and it's very chaotic to say the least but a really good watch and the music is amazing of course.