This IG Account is a Mind-Bending Feast for the Imagination

Toyko-based Joshua Kennewell is the man behind @toumbido, a gallery of visual treats from psychedelic shamans to fantasy monsters

Interweaving fact with fiction, and history with myth, the Instagram of @toumbido is like an arcane democracy of things. A technicolour study of strange anthropology that celebrates man’s age-old obsession with monster stories, the fluid borders of its grid releasing alternate realities that exist beneath our own, immune to the dimensional rules of time and space. “Toumbido is a Fulani word to describe someone who acts as a mediator,” explains its creator, Joshua Kennewell. “I was given the name by some friends from the nomadic Wodaabe tribe when I lived in Niger as a child, because I picked up their language faster than my parents and helped translate. And it feels appropriate to my feed, and my life right now.”

Born in Melbourne, Kennewell’s aid worker parents took him to West Africa where they lived with herdsman in the harsh Sahel region, just below the Sahara, providing healthcare and literacy programmes. Home is now Tokyo, with his young family, sourcing and managing projects with artists for collectible toy company Unbox Industries. A quick scroll, and Japan’s sci-fi influence resonates instantly, but the raw shamanic energy of Africa is never far from his feed. One incredible photograph of a steely-eyed boy wearing a conical hat and ceremonial face paint, flanked by willowy teens in rough-spun indigo crisscrossed with beads, turns out to be Kennewell himself.

“I was 12, and we were out at a traditional Yaake dance, where men dress up and put on make-up to attract women,” he explains. “Some guys wanted to paint me up, just like them. The yellow base is made from ground-up clay from the local mountains, and the black is kohl. The white lines, which I turned down, are made by mixing vulture excrement with saliva. When the chief saw me done up, he offered me his daughter’s hand in marriage. She was beautiful, but I declined. I was only in Niger until I was 14, but I always revisit my time with the Wodaabe. I see parallels between their beauty and beliefs with other cultures I've experienced, like the Aboriginal Australians and Japanese Ainu. It drives my search for the curious similarities that exist within diversity.” 

Brought up on a diet of action films, like Star Wars and Clash of the Titans, his thirst for bigger monster battles led him to Japanese ‘kaiju’ movies and TV shows. “My ultimate fantasy fight would be Godzilla vs. The Kraken!” Strong foundations for working in the esoteric world of prototyping and developing designer toys. And research for the day job dovetails nicely with his Instagram, trawling the collectors stores and fairs of Tokyo for inspirational objects and images. “I also love anthropological books and old copies of National Geographic, but I’m by no means an analogue purist, and source a lot of pictures online from blogs and archives.” His approach to posting feels just as unconditional, mirroring interests as they evolve, and loosely following an aesthetic thread; what started as a hobby becoming a platform for generating new creative friendships and work projects.

“I don’t post so many modern images. There are a few cultures, communities and individuals creating things in line with my feed – artists Robert Beatty and Hiroki Tsukuda, musicians JPEGMAFIA and Mars89 – and I’m not averse to anything new, but I aim for a nostalgic feel,” says Kennewell. “By disrupting time, I can disrupt reality, opening up more possibilities for the fantastic or mysterious.” Breaking through the limitations of the human form and mind is what drives his obsession with tribal rituals and costume. They enable people to cross the personal and psychological boundaries that can restrict thoughts and behaviour, surpassing what humans can normally be and experience. “We know that there’s a lot about life that’s beyond our current comprehension, so maybe it takes a bit of dress-up in order to make us receptive to another level of consciousness.”

Make-up and special effects are also the bridge connecting the worlds of film and folklore that dominate @toumbido. Both are driven by storytelling and appealing to forces larger than ourselves through art and culture, just on varying scales. The beauty of creating monsters is that they have a purity of being and purpose. They can do things humans can’t and play a role in punishing those who break society’s rules. “Does that make them guardians of our morality? I don’t see them as better or worse than us, just on different paths,” he says. “I think there’s a very serious battle taking place for the world right now, and people need to open their eyes to what we can all do in the fight for humanity, and the future of our planet. It would be useful to have some gods and monsters on our side, but this time I think we’ll have to take matters into our own hands.”

A version of this story appears in the S/S19 issue of Another Man.