As African culture is increasingly disseminated across Instagram and through the pages of Western fashion magazines, an exhibition celebrating Nigerian beauty and identity opens in-store at Kenzo Mayfair. Gidi Gidi Bu Ugwu Ze, Unity is Strength fuses the creative talent of three of London’s most promising creatives, filmmaker Akinola Davies, photographer Ruth Ossai and stylist Ibrahim Kamara. We caught up with the trio on the morning of the film’s launch as they prepare for the exhibition’s opening this evening.
Tell us how you originally started working with Kenzo.
Akinola: Partel Oliva – the brilliant image directors at Kenzo – wanted to see the bodies of work they commissioned manifest into something physical and this became the right fit for the first edition of [the zine] Kenzo Folio #1. I went to LA to edit a film I shot in Nigeria and met them both working on their fantastic Club Ark Eternal editorial for Kenzo. They had seen my films but especially the work with Cyndia Harvey which went to Paris as part of the AKAA art fair. Within two weeks of being in LA, I was sitting at dinner with Partel Oliva and Khalil Joseph talking about my work. Needless to say I was terrified that anything I’d done was being mentioned but it was and has been an incredibly supportive experience from day one: that is a real credit to the way they nurture a family setting through their process.
Ruth: Akinola asked me to be involved, it actually took me a long time to commit to it, and we went back and forth a lot. My work is extremely personal to me and to be honest it takes a lot to collaborate with someone. I also have this huge question mark about big western brands coming to “Africa” to shoot and I have said no to collaborations in the past because I have felt I had to compromise way too much.
But Kenzo really did let us take full control and this was done correctly – with a West African team on ground, working with local creatives, producers and assistants, it gave the youths in my village the spotlight to show that they have always been shining, utilising family and community members, offerings to elders, church and school and paying school fees for our community members. It can empower so many – it was a positive cultural benefiting collaboration that empowered youths in my village, but unfortunately still I see so many other brands approach and shoot editorials or campaigns in the completely wrong manner.
Ibrahim: I got a message from Akin about the project and I said yes as I loved Akin’s work!
Had you worked with each other before? How did you all meet?
Akinola: I hadn’t worked with either Ruth or Ibrahim but I’d seen and admired both their process and subtext. I was obsessed with Ibrahim’s incredible exhibition at Somerset House and he’d also come to a few of my parties. I think I actually wrote to Ibrahim on Facebook to be in a music video I shot for Farai. He said yes and we met on set and I pursued his friendship.
He really is a genius amongst us all and I was so gassed he was up for being part of this. With Ruth, I heard about her through a mutual friend and I just fanboy’d her work from start to finish and thought to send her a message on Instagram. We chatted for quite a long while before we actually met about two weeks before we went to shoot this. I have a habit of contacting people who I really admire mainly to tell them how much I admire the detail in their output and what their work means to me. It’s such a difficult endeavour to share such personal work and I think it’s very important to tell those who inspire you how much they mean to you.
Ruth: When Akinola and I discussed which potential stylist would be involved, for me Ibrahim was the first stylist that came to mind. They are both brothers/fellow West Africans, which ticked all boxes for me, as on the ground I wanted an all-West African team, and both are extremely talented.
Ibrahim: I had been in one of Akin’s videos but it was the first time styling for both Akin and Ruth. I was really happy to work with both of them.
Where did the concept behind Gidi Gidi Bu Ugwu Eze, Unity is Strength come from?
Ruth: Originally, Akinola came with the idea of a beauty pageant challenging the Western standards of beauty, which I loved. As we developed the idea further we adapted it so we could shoot in fertile ground and create something very meaningful in my community in Nsukka.
Akinola: The idea Gidi Gidi Bu Ugwu Eze, Unity is Strength came from a combination of things. First, it was a need to tell a conceptual story, using Nigerian Igbo youth as the protagonists of an inclusive beauty pageant which involved the whole community. Its aims were to use culture as a catalyst to identify our standards of beauty and not anything we have become accustomed to within European or American tropes.
Africans have long had their own image repackaged back to them and for us it was important to cut out the middle man and do something that celebrated a lot of the things that we have potentially become accustomed to not celebrating. I think for us as Africans there is a lot of code in our lives that we take for granted; okada (the bikes) as necessity of transportation, pure water (water in plastic bags) as a means for nourishment, traditional hair styles like threading which one of our characters has. We wanted to put these things centre stage because they are the things which are being sanitised and faded out of cultures only to be potentially repackaged to us again.
Ibrahim: The concept was mostly Akin and Ruth’s, I just reacted to the great visual they put together.
Tell us about the work that went into the editorial – the location, the casting process and the story of the film itself…
Akinola: The shoot was conducted over a ten-day period, mainly thanks to hard collaboration of my producers Julie Vergez, my brother Wale Davies and Ikenna Ossai. Ruth and I went ahead to Nsukka to inform the local community leaders, the church and the schools about our intentions for the film. We wanted their participation and told them we were making a conceptual film about their community. We told them it was beauty pageant to show that youth in Nsukka is beautiful and full of potential. But that the focus is on the beauty and co-operation within the community. The location was all within a mile radius from where we stayed, we tried to take into account the natural surroundings, the local market, the means of travel and most importantly how the people wanted to be photographed.
The casting process was crucial: we wanted to shoot and represent bodies that haven’t necessarily been part of a “fashion” narrative. We had obvious limitations like shooting people who fit in the clothes but we thought to try and get as broad a range of faces and sizes as possible. It was extremely hard leaving people out so in the end we selected a main group and secondary group as a supporting cast. We had a lot of extras and people wanting to cameo and aside from that we recruited a lot of people as our crew and made sure everyone that we could get involved was involved and compensated.
As for the film itself I wanted to make something conceptual, initially referencing J. Morris Anderson, who created the Miss Black America pageant, as a direct response to his daughters wanting to be Miss America when they grew up, and a TV show I grew up on called Tales By Moonlight. I had the added bonus of choosing exactly who I wanted to work with and Chino Amobi created music which really served as an engine and heartbeat of the film. Everything and everyone within this production had a real stake in what we were creating and I tried to ensure they understood that.
Ruth: Post-production I sent Akinola my archive photographs of my village to get an idea of the surroundings, architecture, youth to elders and life in general. The story celebrates the culture, traditions and beauty of three main festivals celebrated in Nsukka: Onwa Eto, Onwa Ise and Onwa Esa. It was very important for us to use Igbo in the film and name the film an Igbo proverb “gidi gidi bụ ugwu eze”: “unity is strength”.
What does “Ceremony" mean to you?
Akinola: Ceremony to me personally is a way of life. As Africans we celebrate everything, whether you’re from Lagos or Nsukka, we are united and brought together in celebration. It’s sown into our culture, within our cosmology; birth, death, the harvest, the rainy season, birthdays, anniversaries. They are all occasions to put on a show and invite the whole neighbourhood to come and eat. Everyone puts on their best wears and comes to participate. There is music, food, song and dance all at an intensity which is so special.
Ruth: Ceremony in a Nigerian context to me is about celebrating elements of life itself, whether that’s death, marriage, birth, rain/dry season, or harvest. It brings communities together from far and wide. Ironically we will be having a “Kenzo ceremony" in my village for this whole project, for everyone involved and the community at large to celebrate together, see the final film, photographs and zine!
Why do you think it’s important for a fashion brand like Kenzo to celebrate Nigerian culture?
Ibrahim: I think it’s Important for brands like Kenzo to celebrate all cultures.
Akinola: I think it’s important to broaden the map of culture, not just for Kenzo but across all disciplines. The world was built on with a lot of interwoven stories and sadly some are too often excluded. It’s 2017 and we should be using our mediums as platforms to open more doors and bring more people into the conversation. More importantly to check our privilege because by doing that we allow people to tell their own stories and we do not continue reinforce narratives which are neocolonial. If we allow groups of people to represent themselves rather than reinforcing dated “dominant narratives” then we include their audiences in the narrative and build new bridges.
Nigerian culture, like a lot of African culture is very textured and in some instances there is a broken discord among groups due to history. I think our generation through collaborative means can really start to re-build those bridges by encouraging people to see each other in works such as these.
Ruth: I have always said it is important for all brands and platforms to celebrate all culture but only where it is appropriate. At the moment I am very aware that “African imagery” is very popular within fashion brands. We can all see why, our culture is so rich, vast and diverse that it deserves celebration but these brands need to incorporate depth and sustainability at all times. However, unfortunately brands easily forget this when profit/being relevant/trends is the main focus. I believe this collaboration shows the ways in which engagement can be done correctly, to use our Nigerian voices and art to celebrate, to question the white standard of beauty, empower and represent Nsukka (Igbo’s) and Nigeria at large.
Ruth and Akinola, tell us about your own relationship with Nigerian culture and identity.
Akinola: Well to be really candid, I grew up in Nigeria during the late 80s and 90s so needless to say was a very difficult time, I left in 1998 to come to school in England. So for me I had to reconstruct my identity over here from having a very strong sense of self back home. I’m super privileged to be a dual citizen but it came at a bit of a cost in my teenage years by being displaced from friends, family and being away from my best friend and biggest inspiration – my mother.
Being Nigerian became something I shunned as I wanted to be more British as I went into teenage years and my early 20s. For a period, I decided I didn’t want to go back as the thought gave me social anxiety. I soon came to shed all my previous concepts after visiting for my cousin’s wedding: the warmth and welcome I received on that trip overwhelmed and made me weep. It rebuilt my love for all parts of Nigeria, something I’d been excluded from seeing and having ownership of.
Through the eyes of my cousins, my siblings and my extended family I realised that having an African upbringing is what made me stand out, it didn’t structure my identity but helped me define it and I’d like to create work which does the same for others.
I just hope we can build platforms for ourselves in order to have far greater ownership of our celebrated works.
Ruth: My own relationship with Nigeria is simple; I love and believe in Nigeria with all my heart, especially my own family and community! The strength, tenacity and ingenuity of my Nigerian family and community has made me the person I am today.
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