Emmanuel Adjei had quite a summer — even with the pandemic. In July, the Ghanaian-Dutch director and visual artist shot to global recognition thanks to his co-direction of Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, including the symbolic segment in which she sets her baby in a basket and casts him down a reed-lined river. Then again, 2019 saw his name attached to two powerful videos by Madonna, who cold-called him after seeing “Shahmaran,” the monumental sci-fi vision he created for the Iranian-Dutch singer Sevdaliza. All this in a career that started barely a decade ago.
With his combination of grand, painterly lighting and imagery, rich symbolism and a drive to address authority, injustice and displacement, the 32-year-old director’s vision is made for the moment we’re living in. It makes sense to learn that, growing up outside of Amsterdam and, later, studying fine art in Utrecht and film in Ghent, he was very much influenced by Dutch masters such as Rembrandt. “Even though I’m Ghanian by ethnicity,” he explained from his home in Amsterdam, “I feel very Dutch — just by researching and having a lot of Dutch masters as art inspiration.”
Steeping himself in imagery is a key part of preparation for Adjei, who went to great lengths while researching his contributions to Black Is King, which celebrates African history and culture, toggling between the ancient and modern as it brings to life her 2019 album, The Lion King: The Gift. “When researching all the different cultures, traditions, and aesthetics of West and Central Africa, I soon realized that it generated an overwhelming amount of beauty, which easily could get you art blind!” he said, recalling the lead up to the year-long shoot, which took place on three continents. “I remember having several meetings with Beyoncé and her team at Parkwood, and endless calls with her creative director Kwasi Fordjour trying to find the best way to turn this all into a sincere, well-balanced audio-visual document. The challenge for us all was to present elements of Black culture with a universal message and a modern twist to the Lion King story without losing the authenticity of African storytelling.”
During the summer, the pandemic kept Adjei and his partner, who is also his writing partner, from his usual travel-packed work life. He used the time to work on two features (and sign with a big new agency). We’re looking forward to seeing what incredible visions those rare interior still-lifes brought forth.
Growing up in Amsterdam, it must have been incredible to have had access to such a great museum.
Definitely. A couple of years ago, I directed this film for the Dutch museum nights, when they open all the big Amsterdam museums at night, once a year. I immediately thought about trying to connect all these museums and use them as a film set. It ended up being a film where we follow this character who comes out of “The Night Watch” from Rembrandt. The mysterious girl in “The Night Watch” has been awakened by this spirit as she travels through different museums and encounters other art pieces and has an interaction with it.
What was so great about that project was that I was able to reconnect on a personal level with the paintings and the sculptures that I grew up with and also that I had a personal relationship with. What was really the cherry on top was that at the premiere, I got introduced to Steve McQueen, who happened to be there with his kids. He saw the film and he was like, “That’s a fucking brilliant film.” That was such a great thing because it was so ambitious, but at the same time it was very different from what I was used to doing.
And what are the other great museums in the Netherlands? I feel like people just do the Rijksmuseum.
There are a lot of great museums. I love the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. It’s more like contemporary art, and they have a very interesting collection each time. Utrecht has also the very good Centraal Museum, which is mostly focused on design — interior design but also fashion design. In Eindhoven there’s also a really good one, the door de Staad. A new one is the — I’m not sure if it’s a museum or more of a gallery space, but it’s called Het HEM. It just opened in Amsterdam, and they have very interesting, diverse collection. It’s very new, and they’re still trying to figure out how they can engage a very diverse audience. But the program is already super interesting, and a few friends of mine, colleagues, had set it up. It’s really nice to see there’s still living in Amsterdam — new things and new platforms for artists and their work.
You’ve been able to tell stories on a fantastic scale very early in your career. What has it been like being able to play with the whole box of crayons so soon?
It’s been very challenging. Basically you’re trying to figure out what that drawing will be. And sometimes you lose sight of the image, of the message, because you have all these different colors. It just depends on where you are in your life. I’ve always tried to stay close to myself, so maybe that has been the thing that sort of grounded me always. But also working with people that I feel comfortable with, that know me. For instance, my partner is also my writing partner. We’ve always worked with the idea of creating something that the world sort of needs, instead of focusing on things that come our way. Sometimes it’s hard to select the right projects, but usually if it works, then, yeah, you naturally use the right colors and you naturally use the right crayons to do your work.
And what has it been like to be entrusted to create these fully realized, boundary-pushing visions for some of the biggest names in music?
It definitely feels like a privilege, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. You really have to do your research, and have to know what they want to express, because you’re basically a mediator and you’re trying to channel all that they want to say into a piece. At the same time, it’s also very exciting because sometimes you have a proper budget to visualize something that normally wouldn’t be even a thing.
The imagery and the messages in your work are so powerful. What are some of the images or messages of your own that you were surprised you were able to get through?
For the last project, which I did with Black Is King, there’s this image of the baby being carried in a basket on the river, and that being an analogy of the journey of someone’s life. That eventually being part of the themes running through the film was one of the things I was super proud of. Just because it’s such a simple image, and it just touches a lot of subjects. To me, in that specific film, it does say a lot about the history of Black people as well — you know, the ships and the waters, and the journey that Black people have gone through throughout centuries.
And what messages are important to be able to communicate through your work?
The main message is to always be aware of the gaze. But it also has to do with being aware of the power of symbolism and how we perceive things and how we look at and digest certain symbols, whether it’s ancient symbols or modern symbols. And creating a world where they all can live together: That’s the main direction I always try to convey my work.
Well, you’re very successful! Are you working on a feature length?
Yes, I’m working on two specific projects at the moment.
During the pandemic, what have you rediscovered in your own life?
The main thing was the amount of time I had to reflect.
Is there anything that you collect on your travels?
I wouldn’t say I collect, but I love to go treasure hunting at flea markets. It’s always one of those cases where I come home with something that doesn’t fit the suitcase! When I have the time, I try to go to a flea market or something very local. It’s rare that I stumble upon something that I was looking for, but it’s just something that catches my eye in a certain place. It’s either a garment in nice fabric or it could be like a small sculpture or a painting or a photograph. I wouldn’t say it’s a souvenir. It has to be something tactile that’s specific to that space, but there’s always a certain feeling I try to look for, and it could be in anything. It’s very archetypal, always.
What are some of your favorite flea markets?
A couple of years ago I lived in Ghent in Belgium, and there was one flea market there was literally across the street, and each weekend I basically found so many treasures it was insane. Things that I still carry with me when I move. Belgium has a lot of great flea markets. In L.A., there’s a really good one, the Rose Bowl. I love the ones that have a combination of antiques and vintage design. I love interior design stuff, so when it’s actually — I can’t take that with me, but those are the things that I end up looking for or buying.
Where will your next vacation be?
I would like to plan my next trip to a country where the weather is a bit better than in The Netherlands at the moment. California is first on my list because of work, but a great place to plan a vacation as well.
When were you happiest while traveling?
I really enjoy traveling, but I don’t recall a specific moment when I felt the happiest. I did have a heavy spiritual experience when visiting Florence in Italy a couple of years ago. Somehow it felt like I had lived a past life there centuries ago. I strongly felt that I knew certain specific locations by heart, which struck a range of emotions in me.
The thing you can’t travel without?
My MacBook Pro is quite essential, but I always try to bring some palo santo with me to energetically cleanse the spaces that I’m staying at. If that doesn’t work due to the smoke it produces, then it’s usually certain crystals and minerals that do the trick.
The place or trip that challenged you most?
Switzerland. Two years ago, I did a very challenging hike with two friends of mine that ended up being a near-death experience for me. As I was about to cross a glacier, I almost fell off a cliff at 2000 meters. After hiking for five hours straight, we decided to walk back to our starting point because it slowly became darker; which turned out to be the best decision I ever made in my life.
What is your room service indulgence?
I never really call for room service — I like to go out. But if I do, then it’s mostly ordering some proper Champagne to celebrate life.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
I once spent a night in a motel next to a railroad in the middle of the desert in California. I can’t remember if I was able to sleep that night.
What is your favorite market in the world?
I’m a sucker for flea markets, and I like to go treasure hunting, mostly for art and design furniture! The best one is the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
I once stayed at the wonderful Sant’Angelo hotel in Matera, Italy, which had basically a suite carved inside a mountain. Matera is a 9,000-year-old city and the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
I think the A’dam Tower is a unique spot for meeting up with people. Its rooftop restaurant, Madam, has an amazing panoramic view of the city, and the food is evenly stunning.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
I’ve always felt a deep soul connection with Japan; its unique culture and mythological stories have intrigued me for quite some time. I would love to stay there for at least a month. The best balance would be two weeks in a big city like Tokyo followed by two weeks in the middle of nowhere in the countryside.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
That place would definitely be Ancient Egypt, with its temples, palaces, pyramids, and fortresses. All that architecture must have been breathtaking.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
I usually travel for work all around the world, but for some reason, I never ended up touching the South American continent.
Where would you send them if they stay in Amsterdam?
The W Hotel, the Hoxton Hotel, or the Soho House are some of my top recommendations. I just love the vibe of these spots!
Christine Muhlke is a food consultant and writer currently based in Woodstock, NY. A former editor at The New York Times and Bon Appétit and the founder of the Xtine newsletter, she has written books with chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, David Kinch of Manresa and Eric Werner of Hartwood Tulum. Her most recent books include Wine Simple with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm and Signature Dishes That Matter.