Kriss Munsya is an accomplished graphic designer, published photographer, and award-winning filmmaker. Through his photographic works, 34-year-old Munsya explores complicated issues around race, gender, and identity, often focusing his lens on the trauma and discrimination he experienced as a child born in The Congo, but raised in Brussels, Belgium. His photographs are sharp and colorful, yet dark and whimsical.
His film work also delves into issues of race. His first feature film, Us and Them, told the story of his travels from New York to Los Angeles and the experiences he had as a Black non-citizen. His second film, All That You Need, spoke about his deep love of music and indie bands.
With his latest photo series, The Eraser, Munsya creates obscure, dissected visual narratives and pairs them on Instagram with written vignettes to evoke moments from his childhood that fall somewhere between autobiography and fiction. Using the powerful tools of creativity and activism, Munsya seeks to heal and liberate himself and others.
Gioncarlo Valentine: What were some of your earliest artistic inspirations and explorations?
Kriss Munsya: I was obsessed with drawing when I was five. I wanted to draw anime. I was drawing the Saint Seiya, Dragon Ball Z [characters], and City Hunter. I wanted to create my own stories and create my own characters. I drew a lot, I was drawing everywhere, like on the walls, in my notebooks, all over.
GV: Were your parents artistic at all?
KM: No, my dad is a philosopher and at the time he was working at the embassy of the Congo in Brussels. My mom has an artistic vibe, but she didn't actually do anything really creative at the time. Eventually she learned how to sew and worked as a seamstress. But she wasn’t doing that when I was a kid.
GV: What is the most pivotal moment from your childhood that led you to where you are as an artist now?
KM: When I was 18, I had just finished high school and I wanted to go into a fashion design school. They had these big exams in order to enter the school. The exam was a week long and they only take 15 or 20 students per year. You have to sew stuff. You have to create [a] magazine. You have to do an interview with the teacher. The last thing was the interview. I thought what I said was nice but at the end, when I go to see the results, I see that I'm not one of the people who got in. So I sent the teacher an email asking what was wrong and what I could do better. He explained to me, in a really long-ass email, that I would never be an artist and how everything I did was not interesting. He told me that I shouldn't do art. I was like, "Okay." So, the next day, I gave my submission to the law school, because I was like, "I'm not an artist. I suck, so maybe I should do the opposite of art." That's how I ended up in law school.
GV: Wow. That’s terrible. What was law school like for you? Did you feel challenged? Did you feel supported?
KM: I think it was maybe the most interesting two years of my life because you talk about everything. We learned about philosophy, sociology, psychology, and it was all so interesting, I was a part of the student government, so we organized the parties, the conferences, and the trips. That's how I learned graphic design, because they wanted someone to do the posters and visual communication. I started to use [Adobe] Photoshop and Illustrator, but it was pretty basic. After two years, my friends started to tell me like, "Kriss, I don't think you should stay in a law school because it's not for you. You're an artist."
GV: So what did you do?
KM: I just switched [my major] to Communication. It was much better. After two years I went to study in Madrid. I did graphic design there, and that's when I realized that I could be an artist. I was by myself in Madrid, I didn't have friends there. I didn't speak Spanish for the first three months. I was in a totally new environment. I came back to Belgium and I had a big depression. I came back and I had to go find a job and stuff like that. I had a really, really long-ass depression.
GV: What did that look like for you?
KM: I didn't know for a long time, until I had a talk with my mom. My mom told me, "I think you are having a depression." I was like, "Why do you say that?" She was like, "I can feel it. Tell me what you feel." I told her, "I don't feel sad. I don't feel happy. I just feel empty. I don't feel anything." She was like, "Yeah, that's depression." I was like, "Oh..." [laughs]. So I tried to plan an escape to help me heal. I did a really big travel from New York to Rio de Janeiro for a year. I hitchhiked from New York to LA, and then I-.
GV: Like, hitchhiked, as in on the side of the road?
GV: Really? By yourself?
KM: By myself.
GV: What was that like as a Black man in this country that you're not from?
KM: That's the thing, it was in 2013 before Charleston, before Black Lives Matter. It was right before Trayvon Martin. Being in Europe, I knew about the racism and the police brutality in the States, but being in Europe, I think you don't have the real feeling of what it is because it's so far. You have the news from France, from Belgium, but in my head I’m thinking it's not going to be so bad. It's going to be like Belgium. Before going, I thought that most of the people who would give me rides would be Black people, but they were white people. Mostly middle-aged, single, white men. I had a lot of bad experiences with the police, that's for sure. I was detained 15 times.
GV: Are you serious? For what?
KM: For hitchhiking, because it was illegal in some states. But it was my only way to travel; I couldn't afford to rent a car. The bus service is not efficient. The train service is [not] efficient. Most of the time they would not arrest me. They would come and take me into the car and try to check my ID and stuff. They would see my passport and say, "He's from Belgium." I feel like most of the time they were upset. They were like, "We're not going to put that person in prison or in jail, because they're from abroad. If we do something to them, we have to report to the diplomacy." The first police officer who detained me was a Black man, and he told me. He said, "Yeah. You're from Belgium, so it's complicated. Just go away.” I had a strategy when I was hitchhiking. I used to put my tripod and camera up and act like I was taking photos. I thought people would think that I was more friendly, or an artist, something like that. One time in Alabama, I had my camera on the tripod and a police car just stopped. I had a bad feeling. I had a feeling that this person wanted to hurt me. He was like, "Where you from?" He took my passport, my stuff. It was physical. When he was walking past me, he would hit me a little bit to tease me or something. But it didn't work because I could see that’s what he wanted. He saw my camera and said, "What camera is this?" Then he pushed my tripod so my camera fell. I said, "Man, what are you doing?" I touched a little bit [of] his arm and he took my arm and smashed me against the car, and started to beat me up. He beat me so bad that cars that were passing stopped and asked him to stop punching me. Finally, he stopped and just left my stuff, and ran away. I think I was going to Savannah, Georgia. When I went to the hotel to pay for my room, I realized that he robbed me. He took $100 from my wallet.
GV: That is unbelievable, but fully believable. I’m so sorry that happened to you. Was that the worst experience that you had?
KM: That was the first bad experience. The second was in Louisiana. A police officer saw me and said, "You cannot be here." He handcuffed me, drove me into the forest and he left me there, he just drove away. I thought I was going to jail or something, and he just left me in the f***ing forest. I was like, "Holy sh**." Luckily, maybe two minutes after, there was a truck coming and the truck driver stopped and was like, "Where are you going?" I was like, "I'm going to Savannah." Then he said, "Yeah, I'm going there too." I was just lucky they passed by. Those were the two really bad experiences I had with the police, but at the time, I couldn't see a pattern, because in my head, I was doing something illegal so it was my fault. I never had problems with the police in Belgium, so I didn't know. I really thought for a long time that it was my fault.
GV: Did anything good come from the trip?
KM: Yeah. On my way through the U.S. I was meeting people and I wrote a movie. I was traveling from New York to South Carolina, and I had the idea to do it. The second month, as I traveled between South Carolina and Montana I wrote the movie. And during the final month I shot the movie. It was on the West Coast, like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and LA. I came back in Belgium and I showed it to my friends. I did a screening and one of my friends is a lawyer working in the intellectual rights. He was like, "I think you should send it to a producer, because it's pretty good." So, I sent it and the producer liked it and he bought it. We won two awards!
GV: Let's look at The Eraser series, which you created to reckon with the childhood trauma and anti-blackness that you experienced from your peers and your community. How did you come to the visual language that you chose? The obscure faces, legs, and body parts. Does that dissection and isolation symbolize something specific for you?
KM: When you are discriminated against, people don't see you entirely. They see one part of who you are. I wanted to translate that in the visuals. To show that sometimes people don't see me. They don't see my intelligence. They don't see my sensitivities. They don't see my past. Also, I was really inspired by the album of Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon. It's like, there will be always a part that you don't want to show. I felt like maybe I can show my dark side of my moon, because I'm going to share stuff that I never told anyone. Most of the things that I said there, even my family don't know about it.
GV: During this moment that we're in, with the global movement for Black lives, the coronavirus pandemic, and with our planet on the brink of an all-out collapse, has making art been any more or less difficult for you?
KV: More difficult, mainly due to my mental health. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, I was in Belgium and the racial awareness in Belgium and France is… pretty poor. I started the project, The Eraser, in May and George Floyd was killed two weeks after. I remembered that I had a photo shoot that day and I canceled it. I was in my bed. I felt like I didn’t want to leave my room anymore. I felt so depressed. I feel like it makes everything more difficult, because it's so difficult to move in this world, being a Black person, but it gives me more motivation to tell stories.
GV: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?
KM: Yes. I consider myself an activist, not because I'm doing stuff about racism, but because that's the only thing I want to do. I think I realized one day that it's impossible for me to make art and not talk about it. White standup comedians in Belgium, in France, they would come on the stage and talk about apples, the trains being late, random stuff. Black people get on stage, they talk about their experience, because they have one moment on stage, they have to use it. It has to be useful. White people can talk about anything. I don't have that privilege. I have to raise awareness about this problem, because it's a big problem.
GV: Does that feel restrictive to you at all?
KM: No. No, it gives me freedom actually. I think it gives you more freedom.