Alfie Kungu: Unearthing Creativity in the Motherland
This is Departures – five creatives on the journeys that shaped them. We have collaborated with Fred Perry to create a zine and online series featuring the stories with exclusive photography by Charlotte Patmore. Get your hands on the zine at Fred Perry’s new London store at Coal Drops Yard from 2 November.
Tracing the personal geography of Alfie Kungu, the Yorkshire-born painter whose vivid cultural motifs are shaped by a childhood family trip to Kenya.
My dad is Kenyan and I’d never been to his home country to meet that side of my family before. So my mum decided to take me and my sister out of school – when I was six, going on seven – and go on a big adventure. In England, I was just sitting in a classroom practising my handwriting. Scribing a line of the same letters over and over again. I liked school, but I wasn’t invested in the writing side of things, so going to Kenya at that age, my mum thought, would encourage me to be much more open to exploring.
This was my first time on a plane, so I remember it all so clearly. We got on the flight – it was overnight, quite a long one – and were all handed blankets. The air hostess gave me this really cool deck of cards. I’ve still got them today at my mum’s house; they all had different kinds of illustrated African figures on the back. I remember when we landed that we had to transfer through a bunch of smaller airports. At that age, I was really into wildlife, and I remember being fascinated at the number of lizards in the gardens outside of the airports in Africa, and trying to catch them.
Once we’d settled in, we weren’t really tourists anymore. Nor were we locals. It was a bit like this in-between place that I was told was important to my heritage, but that didn’t mean anything to me then. It just felt like grown-ups telling me things. As soon as I’d got there though, it really made sense. It felt significant. I remember the first time I met all of my aunts, cousins and grandmas. I was still just six years old, but I remember them all, coming out of their houses and crying, and me being overwhelmed by it. The more time I spent in Kenya, I really quickly felt at home.
My parents thought of me as a wild kid. I loved exploring and was always really confident, but that trip reinforced it all, as well as my connection with nature. I’d often go off with my cousins or some boys from the town. We were on the coast, so everybody had either speed boats or wooden sailboats. I’d hang out with all of the locals who were a bit older than me, and we’d sail off into the sea and go fishing for the day, or go exploring around the smaller islands. I look back at it now, and I’d probably be much more apprehensive to do the things I was doing at that age, now. Because I was still quite impressionable, it felt like the perfect age for me to go and see it all.
© Charlotte Patmore
We had Christmas Eve and New Years parties on the beach. The contrast, to me, was such a weird thing. All of the locals and tourists were swarming to the bars, and I remember thinking that it was a trick the adults were playing on the kids. For me, it always snowed at Christmas. To spend winter there felt so alien.
My mum met my dad in Kenya when he was an artist; she is really creative too. So I grew up around it, and subconsciously, because I’m around it all the time, that life seems so normal to me. Even later on down the line, I think it was only when my dad came to one of my exhibitions at the end of university that I realised that I do all of this because my dad is an artist too. It’s nice now, to be able to have this connection with him through his home country and his art.
I went to Kenya again when I was 14. This time, I was much more appreciative of everything around me. I grew up in a small Northern town and I was one of the only black people there, so it was amazing to understand my connection to somewhere else. Still, that trip is so significant. It taught me that I didn’t have to do the things that I didn’t enjoy, and nurtured my creativity instead. It sounds like a cliche, but I know who I am because of going there.
As told to Douglas Greenwood