“Reality can be a bit boring”: Nico Kartel’s photography is a form of escapism

This outlook on life is evident throughout Nico’s work. He photographs a plethora of unconventional models, shot with a serene colour palette of muted pastels and pinks. Light and framing plays an imperative part to his practice, and this only heightens the sense of metamorphism that protrudes in the work. A recent piece, titled 10039, is part of a project shot in 2019 and its name references an area code in Harlem. He documented a model named Rahm in the “safe spaces that Harlem offers”, in turn shooting amongst places such as soul food restaurants on the 135th strip, hair salons on the West 145th strip, as well as murals and monuments of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson on the 125th strip. “Harlem, to me, is still a place where young Black creatives can find endless inspiration and peace that sparks new and innovative ideas.”
Paving his own path, Nico now has a deep-rooted foot in the ground of the world of image-making. It’s something he’s always had a knack for, and an interest that dates right back to his younger years watching horror films and observing the dark and eery scenery. This is his main inspiration and he’s often asked himself how he can incorporate this aesthetic into his practice: “What would it be like to take the methods that are used in horror films – such as lighting, the colourful, but sometimes muted tones, and the beauty of the intensity they use in the plots – and apply it to Blackness and the Black identity?” This inquisition led Nico to apply a more cinematic style to his work, where shadows and tones take centre stage in the artful compositions.
As for his other works, expect to find a collection of honest and telling pieces lensing themes of Black identity in a celebratory, joyful manner. Everything he creates, in this sense, comes from his own personal experiences – and this certainly shows. “I want to depict Black people in fantasy-like ways,” he concludes. “I want them to see my work as an escape from reality. Because, as we all know, reality can be a bit boring or a bit too harsh sometimes. Bring back escapism.”
Besides the theatrics of horror films, Nico also cites American filmmaker Kahlil Joseph as a source of influence – the brother of painter Noah Davis. “It brings me back to that thing I was talking about earlier where the worlds of moody imagery and dramatics, and Blackness merge and melt together perfectly. He does that with incredible ease.” It was after Kendrick Lamar went on tour with Kanye West in 2014 that Nico first became aware of his work, as he shot the LED visuals for his shows, including a 14-minute short film for the Good Kid M.A.A.D City album. What caught his eye was its lack of dialogue, instead opting for a more nuanced narrative in the way it depicted Blackness and Black Trauma. “The thing I love about his work is that when he addresses these things, he doesn’t do it in a cringe-worthy way. When you look at the state of the art and film world right now, and the way it address Black identity, everything can come off as egregious, try-hard and corny. His work is not like that at all. His vision and way of telling stories, their stories and our stories, is so beautiful.”