The man in this image, which forms part of Ivorian “photo-maker” Paul Sika’s series Charbon Fire from At The Heart of Me, is fighting a fire with little sachets of water. These pouches are common in West Africa, where access to pure drinking water is limited. This is obviously not the right equipment to put out a fire, but the man is still using them – because this is all he has. The scene in this particular image represents something of the modern African attitude. It is related to having a problem (the fire) and feeling inadequately equipped. But, equipment is not the only thing that matters. Intelligence, creativity, imagination – these three and more enhance what you have. A combination of tactics, strategy and dedication is what is going to make the sachets have the same effect as a bucket of water. And it’s about not complaining about where you are or what you have, it’s about thinking differently.
The image forms part of Paul Sika’s collection At The Heart Of Me, which was also the name of his first book. The book features stories from Sika’s life, his thoughts and a certain amount of social commentary. Creative force is a character in the text, and even has dialogue with the narrator. In At The Heart Of Me, Sika discusses the impact of creativity and thought on society: how it can be both constructive and destructive.
“I know there is this thing called racism,” says Sika. “I noticed it as a kid. But people who are excellent at what they do don’t get the same treatment. It speaks another language. It is as if being excellent at something reminds people that you are human.”
This drive to be excellent is surely the driving force of Sika’s creativity and often theme of his collections. The stories in his book extended into the photo series called Lilian’s Appeal, which can be seen on the homepage of his website.The characters in the images exist in the fictional world of Yelen and Paisley, which are the names of the two guiding concepts in that world. Yelen, which means “light” in the West African language Bambara, is the power that regulates all things. Paisley is that which is most beautiful in the world, and is a state that the characters (known as Yelenists) strive to be in. Only noble pursuits can get you to a state of Paisley.
The stories of the Yelenist are incomplete, but Sika will not continue with the series in still images. After the exhibition of Lilian’s Appeal, Sika knew that photography was done for him and that he needed to move into the next phase of his creative journey.
Photography cannot contain the whole vision.
It is easiest to explain why by moving back to Sika’s childhood.
“I have a background in computer science, and it is my first passion. Before photographs. Miyamoto got me with a Nintendo,” he laughs. “I love gaming and I love these interesting interactive stories you can tell.”
As he hums the tune from Zelda and the Ocarina of time, Sika goes on to explain his early love of video games and his interest now in the crossroads of gaming, utility apps, art and story telling.
I’m amazed by the connectivity we can have with the internet and the group experiences we can have, I am amazed by them. And the interactions. Today those who understand how this works, they are the modern day wizards. They are the Merlins of today. They can manipulate matter, although virtual. You can create alternative worlds. Virtual reality is the closest thing we have to a dream, it has so much power and potential. These are not games, these are concentrations of life.
Sika learnt to code on a graphic calculator and went to university in the UK to learn how to create games. Then he discovered photography and for a time, the games were left gathering dust.
You can only connect dots when you look back at them. If Sika hadn’t spent time with a camera, he would not have learnt the important lessons about story telling that will enable him to create an immersive and detailed world in his apps. The stories of the Yelenists has not ended, but the medium has changed. In fact there are more Yelenists than ever.
“In the medium of photography there was a certain way to create beauty, thank god I understood some of it. In the medium of the apps there is a different way to create beauty. Every medium has its specificities, and when we understand those specificities we can tell stories in ways that are wondrous.”
Art is not yet highly revered in the Ivory Coast, or in Africa in general. Artists are seen as dreamers who do not understand the important things in life and systems that would be an artists ally in the West are not there to help an aspiring artist in Abidjan.
Sika is currently working on his inaugural game. Although it will eventually grow and become an interactive platform, Sika thinks he will launch it as a single player, single mission game. As soon as it is ready to share we will share it with you.