Kriss Munsya reclaims memories of childhood trauma and racism

View Gallery 5 Photos
Reading Time: 2 minutes
All images © Kriss Munsya.

The photographer and filmmaker’s first personal body of work revisits experiences from his upbringing as a Black child in a predominantly white environment

It is the summer of 1991. Five-year-old Kriss Munsya is road-tripping with his family in Germany. They stop at a motel, where he plays football in the car park with his father, while his mother and older sister hang out on a nearby patch of grass. As he runs to retrieve the ball, which has rolled towards the fence, Munsya catches a glance of another hotel on the other side of the highway. He sees a beautiful swimming pool, a wealthy white family lounging beside it, and a patio full of flowers. He wishes he was on the other side.

Kriss Munsya is describing one of his early memories, which informed the images of his latest series, The Eraser: “I picked key moments from my childhood that made me the Black person I am today,” Munsya explains. The artist was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but relocated to Belgium with his family when he was three years old. They were one of the only Black families in a predominantly white neighbourhood.

“I had all these memories, and I thought, ‘What would happen if I was able to erase them? What if I had a machine that could erase all this trauma?” Inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – a 2004 film about a couple who use new technology to erase one another from their memories – Munsya imagined a world in which these traumatic experiences could be retracted.

Usually, Munsya’s chosen medium is film. This is the first time that he has used photography to reflect on his personal experiences. “I was fortunate enough to be able to take the time and think about my life,” says Munsya, who recently went through a course of therapy. “It can take a long time, and it is a privilege to be able to do that.” Many people assume that it was difficult to make personal work about trauma, he says, admiring how he can share work about it with such ease. “I didn’t rush through these traumatic experiences, I processed them really slowly. It was really therapeutic, because I did it in the right way for me,” he says. “Those scars are healed now, so I can talk about them.”

Adorned with flowers and ribbons, covered in mirrored glitter, or peaking out of draped fabrics, Munsya’s subjects are often faceless, so that the viewer can project themselves onto them. Like the flowers that run through the work, memories can have multiple meanings. “Nothing is just happy, or sad,” says Munsya. “When something is ‘Hollywood’ – as in, where there are good people and bad people – it’s not reflective of reality.” Showing these personal interpretations of his experiences of racism will provoke different reactions from different people. “That’s the closest I can get to my real life,” he says.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.