Mtu wa rangi, Swahili for ‘man of colour’, encapsulates a series of projects by visionary artist and photographer, Arthur Keef. A kaleidoscope of colours — dazzling, captivating and deeply personal — MAN OF COLOR began as a commentary on the Ukraine War and the innocent lives lost as a result of the conflict. However, Keef soon turned his attention inward to a battle closer to home. Using photography and colour science to explore the depths of emotional turmoil and the resilience of the human spirit, MAN OF COLOR became a personal journey of catharsis for Keef. Diving into the waves of his emotions, Keef turned his struggles and triumphs into a colourful saga, with each photo and brush stroke adding a new hue to a journey back to himself. 

MAN OF COLOR by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

In an interview with Arts Help, Keef talks about MAN OF COLOR for the first time, sharing his journey into the project's creation and ultimate finale. He illustrates how, even in the darkest moments, there is a vibrant array of hope, resilience, and beauty — a spectrum that we all have the power to embrace.

By illustrating the profound impact of creating art on personal well-being, MAN OF COLOR invariably draws attention to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Good Health & Well-Being.

CANVAS by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Can you tell me more about the MAN OF COLOR series and the idea behind it?

MAN OF COLOR plays on the idea of all these crazy colours we use, from the outfits to the crazy abstract backgrounds I do and makeup. But on a deeper level, it's about a colourful soul and the struggles and challenges he or she goes through. All these projects piggyback on the crazy ocean of emotions I had been going through the past two years.

ALL LIGHTS RESERVED by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

I’m curious, how many projects were in the series?

Initially, there were ten, but two felt too deep to open up about, so I kept them out of the selection. So, as it stands MAN OF COLOR has eight projects: CANVAS 1,2 and 3, SOLDIERS OF LOVE, PINK HOPE, MAN OF COLOR 1 and 2, and ALL LIGHTS RESERVED as the closer to the series. All of the projects were about conveying feelings through colour and action painting, while still keeping what I am known for in fashion and beauty in the mix.

CANVAS by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Can you walk me through your creative process, particularly how you blend outfits, abstract backgrounds and makeup to convey the theme of a colourful soul?

Everything starts with the background, I spend days on end combining colours to see what blends together. I then paint the background, often repeating it multiple times and once I see how that works, we start putting together the outfit.

At this point, I already have a model in mind. So for a few days, we do test shoots swapping anything on the outfit that might not work, until I find a perfect balance. The stylist is key in this process. After that, I now engage the makeup artist and hair stylist just before we do the shoot.

MAN OF COLOR by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Can you elaborate on the initial inspiration that led to the conception of the MAN OF COLOR project and how it evolved?

The initial idea was to convey things that were happening in society with strong colourful images, but then the Ukraine war started and I felt so strongly about that, especially for the innocent people who would be caught in between. That whole situation shifted my perspective on the project, so the first project ended up being SOLDIERS OF LOVE.

SOLDIERS OF LOVE by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Tell me more about SOLDIER OF LOVE. What were your thoughts going into this project?

Well, for the first time on social media, we could see war unfolding right in front of our eyes, and I wanted to speak on it taking the humanity side. My thought while creating this project was to imagine a world where conflict is solved by soldiers who come to spread love and light instead of war. When boots are on the ground the men and women in uniform wield flowers and teddy bears instead of weaponry, a true peacekeeping mission!

CANVAS 2 by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

How has your emotional journey of the past two years influenced the artistic direction and execution of MAN OF COLOR? How do you translate such a vast ocean of emotions into visual art?

Right after SOLDIERS OF LOVE, my mother fell quite sick, this was really tough for me to handle, especially being an introvert. I couldn't find anyone to confide in through this time, but I knew I needed an outlet, and this series became it. Every single project after SOLDIERS OF LOVE became my outlet, there is a common theme in almost all of them where most of the faces are hidden or covered, this was to portray the fact that I was going through all these things but saving face in front of the world.

MAN OF COLOR 2 by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

How did the process of translating your emotions into art affect your well-being and perspective of it all?

MAN OF COLOR really helped me look into myself and help myself cope through that journey, it gave me a purpose to push on, I clung on to every single task because only at that moment, was I in a zone that I felt was mine. Over time I realized I wasn't as angry or as sad as I had been, I would look forward to the time to release the works to the public. This gave me so much joy. As much as to a lot of people these were just cool images, to me they were much more.

PINK HOPE by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Can you describe the range of emotions that MAN OF COLOR seeks to convey? How do these emotions reflect your journey or the collective experiences of those you represent?

Let's pick two projects, CANVAS 2- OCEAN OF CREATIVITY and PINK HOPE. CANVAS 2 was at a time when there was so much going on in terms of work, friendships and feeling stuck with my work. It felt like I was in an ocean of so much emotion, so I decided to relay it in image. The choice of colour and paint technique swirls all over the background and model almost symbolizing a turbulent ocean, dangerous but also beautiful. 

PINK HOPE was about beauty in the struggle, with a beautiful dark-faced figure in the first shot, then there is this slight circle of light in the next one almost expressing light at the end of the tunnel. This project was also a tribute to the struggle that my Mother was facing at that time, even being that unwell she would still smile and give my siblings and me hope that things would be better.

PINK HOPE by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Are there pieces in the series that hold a special significance to you, and why?

The canvas series was a particularly special one to me. Since it's me speaking. Every single detail about the pieces means something. The use of colours, for example, yellow signifies happy moments, whereas swirls or splatters in the background signify confusion or a burst of a particular type of feeling. These projects were a direct reflection of my heart.

CANVAS 3 by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

What made you decide to make ALL LIGHTS RESERVED the closer? How do you feel it best summarizes all the previous projects in Man of Color?

ALL LIGHTS RESERVED was significant to illustrate the change in my personal life and work in two years. At that point, my mother had gone through a few surgeries but was recovering well. I was no longer feeling as stuck as I was in the past months, it felt like I was coming out of "hell" and into light, that's why in this I opted to do something completely different colour-wise and composition-wise. I even collaborate with some of my favorite creatives around too. It gave MAN OF COLOR the perfect final stamp. At that point, many would say all rights are reserved but as a photographer, all lights were reserved for this series.

ALL LIGHTS RESERVED by Keef. Image courtesy of Keef Photography.

Anything else you'd like to share that we didn't touch on here?

Sometime in March, I will be doing my second solo exhibition, and through this, I am looking, or rather hoping, that I will be able to show my work more to people who are unfamiliar. I believe that once a creator creates and puts it out there, the art now belongs to the world to see and draw inspiration from it.

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