‘Life, Oh Life’ Kofi Allen, Artist, a portrait by Priya Khanchandani
I meet Kofi Allen at the National Portrait Gallery just in time for our two o’clock appointment at the archives. We go to reception, pin on our security passes and sign some terms and conditions, before we are finally let in to a library of books, periodicals and thousands of portraits of the nation’s great and good. The archivist guides us to a large desk and there, ready and waiting for us, is a black and white photograph of the 1990s pop icon Des’ree. There are, in fact, two Des’rees. In one image, towards the bottom of the frame, she is curled among the surrounding cane plantations like a child, her arms wrapped around a flowing, floral skirt. The other image, superimposed onto the first to form a montage, depicts her serene face looming large like the moon, her eyes shut.
The archivist disappears leaving us alone with the image. Allen is smiling with the satisfaction of a child with a long lost toy; unsurprising given he hasn’t encountered what is perhaps his seminal work in a couple of years now. Does it look different from the last time you saw it? I ask. ‘You know what? It has been so long and looking at it again…’ he says, then hesitates, his eyes darting about the picture, almost surprised by it, entranced by whatever, for him, it once connoted. ‘It makes me remember so much. I remember me and Des’ree having this conversation at dinner at the Blue Lagoon in Jamaica. Me and Des’ree alone. She is a beautiful soul.’ The image seems to take him back to the moment like Proust’s madeleine (Proust 48-51), whereas for me it conjures up the tune of Des’ree’s chart topping song Life. ‘While talking to her you can feel the breeze. She commissioned me, you know, and that was quite a radical move, for a music artist at her level to go against her music label.’
It was taken in 1997, well before the digital camera would revolutionise the way professional photographs were taken. ‘Everything was hand printed, hand masked, negatives stuck together with trial and error and there was a process of finding the right paper’, Allen explains. Demystifying the act of making, he says that the apparent effortlessness achieved here is anything but real; but rather the result of intense skill and labour. At that moment a camera appears from his bag. He snaps a quick picture of his work in an act that encapsulates the ease of today’s digital cameras. He shows how inseparable his own perspective is from the lens of the camera, even when looking at a photograph that he himself took; a young Allen at a turning point in his career. It is a moment that I watch him recreate through his camera, as we talk further.
Talking to Allen about photography is akin to talking about spirituality. ‘I take a spiritual stance to my connection with people, life, the planet’, he says. ‘I think art is a spiritual awakening.’ He sees the purpose of photography as being to capture a person’s essence and his portrait of Des’ree is perhaps the best example. ‘We had this conversation,’ he says of the circumstances of the commission. ‘Having a conversation’, in Allen’s language, I soon infer from his prolific use of the term, often involves a metaphorical exchange. This particular ‘conversation’ involved largely abstract ideas: ‘in among the trees’, ‘something connected’ and ‘an inner voice’; notions that lead me on a search for tangibility. How did it you actually make the photograph? I ask, trying to pin him down. What I was interested in was his process; how he harnessed his tools and his subject to craft this interpretation of reality. ‘We had a quiet moment’, he says, still speaking very much on a conceptual plane, ‘and in that moment I kind of saw this image.’ From Notorious B.I.G to the Fugees, Allen captured the major music icons of the nineties with his camera lens, but it is clear from the way he reflects on his work that he is anything but a commercial photographer at heart. The Des’ree work, in particular, was rubbished by her record label, Sony, he told me, for not showing enough cleavage, and yet now forms part of one of the most prestigious portrait collections in the world.
The rest of this extensive essay is available in the print edition of Wasafiri: Issue 76 Special Issue Metropoles: International Inner-City Writing