“Tender was definitely a safe space”: Nicole Ngai and Ezekiel collaborate on a remedial new project
The London-based photographers have long been nurturing their collaborative process, with their most recent endeavour taking form in a therapeutic new series and book.
- Ayla Angelos
- 1 December 2020
Some say that the friendships formed at university are those that will go on to become your greatest network. Proving just that is Nicole Ngai and Ezekiel who, four years ago, met while studying on the fashion photography course at London College of Fashion. Working collaboratively ever since, not only have they garnered an understanding of each other’s work and process, but they’ve also witnessed each other’s personal growth.
This is very much the focal point of their most recent publication and series titled Tender. Devised in 2019 during their final year in university, the two formed a blossoming friendship after sharing a darkroom together. “This was a space where we really got to know one another, celebrate our work and also vent,” Ezekiel tells It’s Nice That. “At one point, we were feeling pretty anxious about upcoming deadlines and frustrated at the bureaucracy of university,” they add, “so we decided to start Tender as a means of creating work that couldn’t be tied down.”
Presenting a range of photographs from 2019 and 2020, Tender is a true documentation of friendship and the self. What first started out as a more interpersonal quest soon evolved into a larger investigation, where both London-based artists proceeded to explore everything and anything in front of them. It’s a somewhat remedial approach, notably due to the overbearingly difficult year we’ve all experienced so far. As such, the application of the word “tender” comes with great accuracy.
“‘Tender’ was a word that our peers would often use to describe our work, so we decided to run with that and interpret it any way we knew how,” says Ezekiel, a Filipino artist who sees tenderness in the form of physical intimacy, likeness and the mundane. “During a period of incredibly overwhelming occurrences – from the global pandemic to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and personal losses, I wanted to address the tension between artistic and emotional expression through the photographic practice as a means of grounding myself.”
In a similar vein, tenderness is an element that Nicole has long drawn focus on, especially for its relationship with nature. Having grown up in Singapore, she’d only ever experienced one tropical, summer climate. “When I moved to London,” she says, “I noticed how time passed and was measured differently with seasonal shifts in appearance and mood.” This transient switch between the seasons is an attitude that Nicole adopts in life and her process, one that involves the idea of memento mori – a symbol of death and mortality, to “remember you must die” – that signals the fleeting, preciousness of life. In this case, the environment features heavily in the zine. “From the double exposure portrait of Vita paired with a swirl of bubbles, existing only for a brief moment before eventually disappearing,” she adds, “to the shadows cast by sunlight filtering through leaves, to the iridescent reflection on the lake resembling the universe itself.”
A harmonious process between two akin souls, Tender is the result of a beautiful artistic connection. While Nicole marks the zine as a “safe space” that they created in response to the events unfolding throughout the year, Ezekiel confirms that it’s very much a form of art therapy. “As Nicole mentioned,” they add, “Tender was definitely a safe space, a project that we could turn to when we were feeling uninspired or needed to take our minds off things.” Often, the two will explore similar themes – including intimacy, empathy and the gaze – within their work so it was an inevitable turn, not to mention a gratifying outcome achieved through the use of analogue processes.
Ezekiel cites the midpoint of the zine as their favourite, which is the moment at which the two photographers’ work collides. “There’s definitely a similarity in the colour palette, lighting and overall mood; but also a difference – you can definitely distinguish whose image is Nicole’s and which one is mine.” Otherwise, they cite a picture of Nicole and Wenchu in their living room, a shot taken pre-lockdown and pandemic. An instinctive process, Ezekiel asked their subjects to respond as if nobody was there culminating in a candid shot of them both “milling around” in their most comfortable setting.
Nicole, comparatively, points out a picture of Lilli lying on the beach. Waiting for the suitable juncture to take the photograph, it arrived on the last day of their holiday with soft and pastel-tinted sunlight beaming through the window. “This was such a raw and delicate shot, as we only had a ten-minute window to shoot it before it turned dark,” she says. “The beach was mostly empty, but there were a couple of stragglers. We got told off for being ‘fucking hippies’.”
As a collective whole, Tender is here to serve as a gentle reminder to nurture the smaller parts of life. It’s a balanced pairing, with Ezekiel’s work, whose imagery explores the intimacy of personal connections and the everyday, joining forces with Nicole’s, whose work sees the “outer world and fleeting moments” as her muse. It’s a necessary alignment that enables them both to make sense of the world around them. “The past year has been a really odd experience for everyone,” concludes Ezekiel. “It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety of wondering what is to come next. We hope people learn to appreciate the day-to-day life we have tried to.”
GalleryNicole Ngai and Ezekiel: Tender
Nicole Ngai and Ezekiel: Tender. Ezekiel: Fuck Boris 2019 (Copyright © Ezekiel 2019)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.