Photographer Delali Ayivi is delivering the change she wishes to see in the industry
Meet the recent London College of Fashion graduate looking to shape the industry in order to tell more diverse stories across the board.
Photography as a medium comes down from a long family history for this graduate, Delali Ayivi. Born to a German mother and Togolese father, and growing up in the former before moving to study at London College of Fashion, Delali’s great grandfather was one of the first photographers in Togo. Heritage, research, collaboration and appreciation play a large part in Delali’s perspective on creativity, informing her inclusive practice. And despite only just graduating, she is already actively promoting (not to mention being) the change she wants to see in the industry.
This change was driven by Delali’s observations when looking at the industry she was entering into. And with these observations came opportunities to shine a light on diverse narratives. Through collaboration, in particular with her close friend and creative partner Malaika Nabillah, the crux of the work circles back to the necessity of diverse stories across all creative mediums. An insight that we’re treated to in-depth below in our interview with Delali.
The result, is work that is not only visually arresting but eye opening in its intelligence. It’s this factor that led us to believe that Delali could have excelled in any subject she’d decided to pursue as a career (and that was nearly medicine) – thankfully for us it was a creative one.
It's Nice That: Your work is not only incredibly beautiful but presents a different narrative to the mainstream dominated by Western ideals. When and how did you realise photography could be a vehicle for addressing uncomfortable truths?
Delali Ayivi: The work my friend Malaika Nabillah and I create in Togo especially demonstrates the need for a diverse narrative, because our narratives are largely determined by stereotypes and power structures outside and within our community. The developmental myth has created an image of Togo that is extremely harmful. A large part of our work is sitting down with other artists to listen to each other. This learning process greatly influences who we capture and how we capture them. Malaika and I cannot paint a comprehensive image of the realities of being Togolese, but we are trying to diversify a very small part of this narrative through our images.
This is the point many of our images make: we need diversity in storytelling, we need stories from people in Togo, as well as its diaspora. We need Malaika´s story and we need my story, and everything in between or around it. We need to question why this singular narrative has been perpetuated for so long. We don´t need NGOs or foreign reports to tell us how happy, sad, safe or developed we are.
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Togo Yeye: Florence wears a dress by Light Fakambi
“My pictures look the way they do because of the realities I have been confronted with.”Delali Ayivi
Before I went to university I had been researching into French neo-colonial policies, concepts of volunteerism and developmental aid and power imbalances, but whenever I would try to talk about these topics I could tell that it was just too distant for my friends in Germany. Later on, when I had just started university, I tried talking to my friends about the experiences of being Black in Germany, and again, I encountered a lack of compassion and understanding.
I didn’t start photographing with the intention of explaining to people who do not want to listen about my research and experiences, but my pictures look the way they do because of the realities I have been confronted with, as I am always conscious of them. I discovered that whenever someone wanted to discuss my work with me and my influences, I would inevitably address certain topics.
JC and Jannik
INT: I love how you started photographing people you met on nights out or friends as a response to the underrepresentation of African and Togo cultures at university. Do you think universities can or will become more inclusive when it comes to the official curriculum?
DA: Creative studies are very subjective. The curriculum and the perspectives we are being taught thus really depend on our tutors.
I wish I had been introduced to more fashion systems around the world early on in my studies. It would have made my first two years a lot easier for me. It is important to have role models at university who can understand your work, thought processes and the industry you want to work in. The curriculum therefore can become more inclusive, if it is open to less traditional sides of the fashion industry, and is willing to bring in tutors who can open our eyes to different creative practices around the world.
We learn a lot about cultural misrepresentation in the western world, and to be very critical of current practices here, but we do not learn much about the creative industries in countries and cultures that are being misrepresented. A good start to introduce a diverse set of realities is to hire tutors and invite guest tutors who can contribute to the curriculum with these perspectives.
I must add that I was lucky to have very perceptive tutors who, once they realised what direction my work went in, made a great effort to connect me to industry experts who could give me informed and relevant feedback on my work.
“Once I embraced my creative influences and what imagery spoke to me, my work improved greatly”Delali Ayivi
INT: Your work combines fashion, portrait and documentary photography together with equal importance. How has your style developed over the years?
DA: I think my style is still developing and I had to go through a phase of creating a lot of really bad work – which luckily no one will ever get to see.
Through my course at university I have learned to think more conceptually, and be more intentional with my imagery, but I also had to unlearn a lot. I was going to study medicine and applied to UAL as a last minute decision, so I really did not know much about the fashion industry when I first started. I vividly remember googling how to dress fashionably before leaving for London and reading that I must never wear black jeans. I went out that day and bought a pair of blue denim trousers.
By the end of first year I was really beginning to question my decision, because I just couldn’t find my niche in the industry – the work I was creating was more about what I thought fashion should be, and not really what I wanted to see. Halfway through my second year I just had to sit down and be honest with myself and where I wanted to go. Once I embraced my creative influences and what imagery spoke to me, my work improved greatly because it was genuine and felt natural to me.
My work now looks much more like the images my friends and I used to take of each other in Malawi, my family photos, or my initial portfolio before I started university, than all the work I produced during my first two years at university.
INT: What would you say is the most valuable lesson you learned during your time at university?
DA: The most valuable lesson I have learned, and this will sound like a real cliché, is to be true to myself.
My course at university emphasised the importance of defining your guiding principles. I was continuously required to question social norms and the industry we were working in. It was made clear to us that our university can only provide impulses for ideas and access to resources or tools, but it was our own responsibility to further develop these initial impulses through our self-initiative.
This requires a certain level of self-awareness, which means owning up to the influences that have shaped you as a person and artist, as well as knowing where your values lie and accepting that it is okay to bring a different perspective into the industry. Clearly defining my values has helped me a lot in figuring out where I want to take my work, and which opportunities in the industry are for me.
Having a sense of self has also helped me attract friends with the same energy and mindset. Having a supportive network of friends is really what carried me through the past three years. We all had to work extremely hard, not just inside university, but also outside. Creating work, or working somewhere that aligns with your principles, is extremely important for your career. Though I have to say it is not always easy.
INT: Which project are you most proud of and why?
DA: My proudest project so far is Togo Yeye which I started with my closest friend, Malaika Nabillah, who’s based in Lomé.
It started with the intention of creating something just for our Togolese community, with the main objective being to document, and celebrate, those who push creative boundaries – especially in Lomé’s fashion industry. We also hope that through collaboration with artists and friends we can strengthen our community, and bridge the gap between the Togolese diaspora and people at home. For that reason, our work often addresses the cultural dynamics between the many facets of Togolese identity.
We meet most of our emerging designers by working with students from Lomé’s fashion academies, such as Eamod Ayanick and FAALT. Besides the photography, a large component of our work are our conversations with artists about tradition, defining a Togolese modernity and our history. We find that through our different perspectives and geographical upbringings, we can learn a lot from each other. Malaika and I don’t always agree on everything but what connects us is the love for our country.
JC and Jannik
“Through our different perspectives and geographical upbringings, we can learn a lot from each other”Delali Ayivi
We also found that our skill sets really compliment each other and we are both very creative and hard working. Malaika is an incredible speaker and knows how to explain our project really well to others, she is also very knowledgeable on the business and production side of things and has an incredible eye for casting.
We are really proud of our work so far, but even more excited to keep working on Togo Yeye. Because of Covid-19 we only got to test the waters with our project and we are really looking forward to reuniting and continuing our work. We hope to create exhibition spaces in Lomé where creatives can consult and learn with each other. Our next step will be to create an online directory for Togolese creatives worldwide to make it easier to connect with each other.
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.