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Orlando Mensah

art director / co-founder Manju Journal

Back in 2015, Accra-based art director Orlando Mensah founded a new culture platform named Manju Journal. Its mission is to champion emerging talent in photography and other creative disciplines from across Africa and its diaspora, and foster a supportive community along the way. Stylist Kusi Kubi joined in early 2020 as fashion director. Over the last years, the platform has become the go-to place for a new generation of image-makers and storytellers on the continent – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by big industry players. In 2020 and 2021 alone, respectively Gucci and Burberry approached Manju for collaborative projects set in Ghana – making use of both founders’ local expertise. For Orlando this is only the beginning: with the platform he is becoming a mediator between the abundance of young makers and the industry they have often been excluded from. Here, Orlando speaks about how the West-African creative industry has evolved over the last couple of years, what makes a compelling photographer, and what work he likes to adorn his own house with.

Q
What draws you to the medium of photography?

A
My interest in photography began when I was in university, where I studied Fine Arts and Linguistics. I was introduced to the tradition of great Ghanian photographers such as Ofoe Amegavie and Francis Kokoroko, and found great inspiration in the stories that were behind the imagery. It is amazing to see how narratives change throughout time and how that is reflected in photography. Through an image you get a glimpse into the life and thought process of its maker. Topics like societal views on masculinity and femininity are expressed through this medium, which I find super interesting.

Q
You’ve been curating lists of photographers-to-watch for Vogue Italia and i-D, among others. What is your modus operandi when selecting?

A
For me it is very important that the photographs I select challenge or change some of the more deeply-entrenched narratives and norms on the continent. Take for example Sierra Leonean visual artist Ngadi Smart, who in her work has spotlighted a community of young drag queens in Cote d'Ivoire, or Lagos-based photographer Daniel Obasi, who is challenging ideas around masculinity and dressing in Nigeria. At the moment I’ve set myself a mission to bring attention to the abundance of women photographers we have on the continent, such as Rahima Gambo from Nigeria, Fatoumata Diabete from Gambia and Sierra Nallo from Sierra Leone. These have remained underrepresented for far too long.

Q
Does Manju in that sense almost act like some sort of agency?

A
For me the platform acts as a safe space and community, where talent from both the continent and the diaspora is being brought together. Whereas there have been a number of rising stars coming from the continent, locations like Lagos, Accra and Johannesburg were never really taken seriously as creative hubs. That is why we have the ambition of setting up a creative studio here as well, so we can engage in strategic partnerships and collaborations, develop concepts ourselves, and tap into local talent. We need the infrastructure to make these hubs flourish: that means setting up agencies, publications, festivals, et cetera, on the ground. It is challenging though, not having institutions that back it up financially. But there has definitely been a clear and promising shift when it comes to how the creative industry has progressed.

Q
Working with local talent can imbue a project with interesting layers and meanings. Could you give an example of something you have worked on?

A
The project we did with Gucci is a good illustration. We were asked to create a campaign around a re-issued genderless bag. We then delved into the concept of gender fluidity in Ghanaian culture, which for example is illustrated by the fact that pronouns in Ghanian dialects are genderless. We then looked into ways to visually translate that notion – so the project came together by making use of local knowledge.

Q
For Homecoming you have selected Kojo Amin as your curated photographer. What drew you to his work?

A
What I love about his work is that it instils a sense of hope in the viewer – especially the work Future Leaders that I selected [which shows a boy in a grown man’s suit]. Rather than using vibrant colours, he solely works with black-and-white, and in doing so creates very compelling imagery. His work holds the middle of fine art and documentary style, a style that I really love. I could see him doing some incredible portraiture work in the future as well.

Q
Do you make a distinction of what you hang on your wall and what you feature on your platform?

A
Actually, no, not at all. I really love Kojo’s work, and I am currently working on a creative project where we as a team are looking into having him on board as one of the creatives. I am really proud that I can support an artist like this, and also have his work featured in my home soon!

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