Sinitta Akello Owor. You may know her better as simply Sinitta Akello. Or perhaps Cultured Ego. The Ugandan-born makeup and body artist is one of Kenya’s most sought-after creatives. And rightly so. Her distinctive approach to beauty allows her to swing between natural aesthetic and the magnificent manipulation of mixed media to create stunning and eclectic looks. A skill that has caught the attention of industry leaders. Be it being involved with the Osborne Macharia project titled Ilgelunot or recently being featured in American Vogue’s ‘Kenyan Cool Girls Guide to Nairobi’. To close our BTS series, meet the Nairobi-based artist responsible for some of the most quintessential looks in the Kenyan industry to date:
First things first, what happened to the Cultured Ego magazine?
Oh, that was a monthly newsletter I used to publish to let people know what I had been up to. I need to start that up again but this time as a quarterly. I started it as a marketing strategy, however, I felt like I am constantly bombarding people with information they’d start to avoid my work altogether.
We could have sworn it was a magazine, did you do it yourself?
Yes, I did. Editorial design was part of my university degree. When I was in England, I studied visual communications at Birmingham City University (BCU) because I wanted to go into advertising. In a nutshell it’s graphic marketing. You’re working with visuals, but with a target market in mind, to best deliver a message in a way they’ll easily accept it. I graduated in 2010 but I stayed on in England for 2 years; which is the part of my career that I went a little off course.
It was the first time someone told me ‘You are not okay in the head’. That’s one of the best things anyone has ever said to me!
Since GCSE I have consistently chosen art, but then after university I went the corporate route and I worked as a conference coordinator. I would get the Sunday blues every Sunday just thinking about another whole week of work. So, when I came back to Nairobi, I’d do my own thing instead and I’ve never looked back.
And you chose makeup?
I essentially wanted to produce a magazine, which in the future I still have my sights set on. I did my research on what was happening in Kenya at that time (2013) and that was the point where bloggers were really coming up. I decided to do a blog instead that would cater to alternative African fashion and music. You may know it as Cultured Ego. It’s only recently that I merged it with makeup but previously I was focusing more on the fashion. To create the imagery for the website, I would do these fashion shoots in places like Maasai Market, where I was photographer, hair and makeup artist and the stylist as well. Out of all the roles, it was makeup that I enjoyed the most. That’s why I decided to pursue it as a career.
How did you make that transition?
At that point, I had wanted to interview Suzie Beauty for the blog. When doing my research on them, I saw on their Twitter page that they were looking for makeup interns. I applied and started in May 2013. I then left in November 2013 and freelanced until I joined MAC Cosmetics in November 2014 where the training was extensive. I left MAC in February 2016 and now I’m a freelancer again.
Why did you leave the MAC?
MAC is very makeup focused. I don’t think that there was really room for my growth in terms of where I wanted to go as an artist. Obviously, I am a MUA but what I mostly do is very artistic makeup looks. My aesthetic is mixed media where I like to experiment with unconventional materials such as beads, studs, sequence and glue guns. I just felt that it wasn’t the place that I needed to be.
Once I’ve been moved by the universe and the ancestors have put an idea in my head, I get down to the structured bit.
Nonetheless, I am very grateful that I worked for MAC because what I learnt from them has influenced my style of makeup. Even if I’m doing something that is very creative-entered I still consider that the skin is more than just a canvas. It needs to be protected.
You were recently featured in Vogue, what would top that?
Being featured in alternative magazines such as Dazed and i-D. I tend to look at what everyone else is doing and go in a completely different direction. It’s not a strategic move, rather a reflection of who I am. I don’t just do this with makeup but with everything in my life. If I go shopping I can appreciate a dress but because I’ve seen so much of it, I’ll go for something else. Or if we’re at a shoot and they recommend a popular colour I’ll usually advise that we go with something that isn’t the obvious choice.
What would you consider your most bizarre look so far?
It was one of the looks I did for the Fear and Desire project by Magiq Lens. In particular, an image I had places flowers underneath the model’s eyes. I wouldn’t say it was my craziest look, since then I’ve elevated the eccentricity, but it was the first time someone told me ‘You are not okay in the head’. That’s one of the best things anyone has ever said to me! I took that as a major complement, because I believe that you can’t create something captivating and unique if you think like everyone else. That look was a confirmation that I should continue down this path.
A path that has seen you recently acquire a space at Kuona Trust…
The reason I got a space there is because I have been using hardware implements like studs, which are a staple in my makeup kit. Of course, I have my ‘normal’ makeup kit with the foundations and concealer, etc. Then I have the other kit for creative shoots that has my studs, beads, feathers and brass to mention a few. I’ve used nails on someone’s face once to make shades, and I’ve used acetate to create shades for Musician Franck Biyong’s album cover, photographed by Osborne Macharia. They had wanted goggles but since they were going for a supernatural theme I suggested that we go with something custom-made to really incorporate that out-of-this-world feeling. Examples like this are the reason why I like to be part of the team and the pre-production process.
Are you a structure-oriented or ‘wait for inspiration to strike’ kind of artist?
Once I’ve been moved by the universe and the ancestors have put an idea in my head, I get down to the structured bit. I like thorough mood boards and briefs that reflect the individual roles of each member of the collaboration. Knowing what is required of the photographer, stylist and hair helps me know how it will all come together. I also like to have a focal point. If I’m creating a statement with the lips, it’s just the lips and everything else is toned down. It all must fit and work together.
Working as a team is extremely important to me. So even if my makeup is quite bold, I’ll tone it down If the styling or the hair is bold for that particular shoot. I don’t mind letting the photography, styling or hair take the centre stage because I consider the final image instead of just the makeup.
You also work with body art, is it very different from makeup
It’s going into styling. For instance, the cover I did for True Love Magazine Kenya with Joy Kendi, I had to do a fitting with her. Whereas it would have been a direct process if it was facial art, mixed media relies on perfect measurements and design. I had to get the sequence coverage just right. I started out by designing the look first on a flat surface before transferring it to the body. there is a lot of deign that goes into it.
Any projects in the pipeline?
I have a couple that will address certain issues. because I am a Pan African and I am very passionate about Africa and our history, I want to help people understand that a lot of the things that we have instilled in our minds, hasn’t come from our culture. I have the tools as well as the resources, and visuals are the best way to communicate. So, my focus is going to be making statements through my work because I believe Africans should be telling their own stories.
How many Personal projects do you do in a year?
Interestingly, if you look at my portfolio, about 70% of the work is projects I was part of. When I started, not a lot of people were doing this genre of artistic and expressive makeup. The projects that I’ve worked on have given me the space to do what I need to do to express myself. They were a win-win situation because it grew my portfolio and it gave my clients a fresh take on a concept. When I accept projects, it’s work that will help me get to where I want to go.
That said, ideally, I would want to do one a month but right now I have a backlog of ideas on my laptop. All these folders with each photographer’s name on them and the different projects I think would suit them. It’s important for me in the point of my career that I’m at. I don’t know if once I hit my goals that they’ll still be necessary in helping me bridge the gap to where I want to go.
And where is this exactly?
I want to inspire African in general to know that we need to appreciate and invest in ourselves. For example, foreign brands opening in Africa isn’t a marker for ‘Africa rising’. Africa rising is Diana Opoti with Designing Africa Collective Africa or Wanjiku Nyoike-Mugo with The Designers Studio; stores that promote African fashion. When things are African owned and when we are doing business among ourselves, that’s how the African economy grows.
In the interim…
I want to hone my aesthetic – which is paying homage to heritage through mixed media – more and create work that it more in line with my goals. When you start to look at things on an international scale, I need to start separating myself from makeup artists that do what I do. Find out what makes me different from all the best in the same field and grow that.