Kikz is a vision of power. The Nigerian-born dancer (below) escaped a life of child slavery, emigrated to the UK and started anew on unfamiliar soil – and here she sits, dressed in her native finery typically worn by West African queens, raising a teacup (for what could be more British?) to her personal coup. With her expression blank, she gives nothing away – but the compelling juxtaposition of these two cultures is enough to leave the viewer wanting more.
Such is the skill of Haris Nukem. Each of his ethereal snaps is designed to tell a story, to pull the viewer in and to start a conversation of sorts – “to give people access,” he says, to a world that isn’t theirs.
“Often we can feel quite incubated inside of the civilisations we live in, and I don’t think we ever consider how fragile they are,” he muses. “What photographers do is help us understand how lucky we are.”
Just five years ago, this particular photographer was at a crossroads; it wasn’t a mid-life crisis as such – he is, after all, only 30 – but his years spent working in an advertising job he was desperately bored of were beginning to take their toll. In an effort to find a sense of purpose, he launched a small fashion line with a friend – a move that provided a springboard to a new career.
“When it came to taking pictures of people wearing the clothes, everything clicked,” Nukem recalls. “I just became obsessed with taking photographs.”
In the five years since, Nukem has plunged into the world of fashion photography with aplomb, shooting campaigns for the likes of Boy London, Selfridges and Visit Britain, and working with record labels Universal Music and Warner Group.
More recently, he’s turned his focus to his personal portfolio of portraits, which has captured the attention of the art world and spawned two solo exhibitions. It’s been a lightning trajectory for somebody who has no formal training in the medium – but it transpires that this is what gives Nukem his edge.
“When I started taking pictures, I wanted to do so in a way that other photographers didn’t; I wanted to create a new style, give a new polish to an image – and a lot of that was predicated on the fact that I really didn’t pay much attention to what was in vogue for fashion photography, or any form of photography really,” he says. “So I try and avoid looking at other people’s work. The type of photography I do like looking at is probably a lot more basic than my own.”
And you wouldn’t be hard pushed to find a simpler style than Nukem’s. The photographer’s works are provocative and thought-provoking in equal measure, involving an emotional brainstorming technique (“I go somewhere on my own and I make myself feel anxious,” he says), a mixed bag of eclectic props and elaborate set designs. The results appear other-worldly, an effect amplified by the photographer’s preference for cinematic lighting.
One image, 21st-Century Romance, sees 50 people entwined “in a sort of human tapestry,” he grins. Another involves a life-sized mould of Nukem’s friend Alice, which took 600 hours to 3D print and cast in cement. He then photographed the two together, a human model emerging from her concrete shell. “She broke the mould,” he chuckles.
Others incorporate cultural and historical icons, enveloped in a modern-day cloak that contemporary viewers can relate to: Elizabeth I with a sleeve of tattoos, peeking out from underneath a golden brocade dress; the traditionally self-disciplined Batman and Robin revelling in their status as heroes at a party; and Joan of Arc leading a mob of protestors brandishing “Meat is Murder” and “Not My President” signs.
Portraiture is Nukem’s preferred medium, an attempt to capture “some semblance of emotion”. He credits his inquisitive nature to his childhood – his family sought asylum in the UK from Bosnia (then called Yugoslavia) when he was three years old.
“Because of all of the transitions in my youth, I’ve always been very curious,” he says. “Something that’s always interested me is seeing things that we all have in common, regardless of everything around us – the minute nuances of humanity. It’s something I would really notice as a kid, because there wasn’t a great deal of input into what was what. I was just bumbling about, trying to understand interactions with people.”
His upcoming exhibition, Faith, which opens at Maddox Gallery on 6 September, allows this curiousness to transcend to the viewer. A satirical commentary on the ideologies of the 21st century, each image is focused around the idea of starting a conversation – whether that be about vanity, drug culture or social media.
“This exhibition is about where, in a more and more secular western world, we place our intrinsic needs as humans to believe,” Nukem explains. “There are so any ideologies now – having a deep oneness with the idea of astrology; different political fringes; people trying to affect change – and all of these things are kind of an awakening. As we become more secular, people look for places to put their beliefs that are more tailored to their own ideas. Every image in this exhibition is there to pose a platform to discuss how things really are.”
His subjects tend to be his friends “almost exclusively” and are often women – a by-product of a female-heavy industry, he says: “Men are championed in a lot of things, but the fashion industry is one of those places where women reign supreme – and probably for a good reason.”
His close-knit community provides a breeding ground from which his shoots are born, but it’s London, he says, that provides the biggest inspiration of all.
“London is the coolest place in the world,” he smiles. “Some of the most inspirational places on earth are so local, and I feel super-grateful to have the opportunity to work with so many talented and wonderful people. If I lived anywhere else, I wouldn’t be able to do these shoots that have 50 people in one photograph – that kind of thing is very London-centric. In those moments, more bonds are formed and more people become friends, and it’s a really powerful and beautiful thing.”
You’re Invited: Join Maddox Gallery for an Exclusive Reader Event
Join Luxury London, Maddox Gallery and Roger Dubuis on Thursday 19 September for a private view of the new Faith exhibition, from 7-9pm.
You will be greeted by drinks and canapés, followed by an introductory talk from Haris Nukem. Enjoy the opportunity to explore the exhibition after-hours, meet the artist and mingle with industry insiders.
Tickets are limited. To attend, please email [email protected] by Friday 13 of September 2019.
Faith, 6-27 September, Maddox Gallery, 9 Maddox Street, W1S, maddoxgallery.com