On Identity, Femininity and Politics
A graduate of Birmingham City University’s Visual Communication programme, Juliana Kasumu’s photography is woven around narratives of West African womanhood, interrogating issues of misplaced identity, femininity, politics and fashion. Working between portraiture and documentary, the artist demystifies preconceptions of black women and their bodies— a subject unique to her as a British-Nigerian and a black female artist living and working in Diaspora.
What draws you to hair as a subject?
It started off from dissatisfaction with the state of my hair, due to the damage it had undergone during years of chemical relaxers. After stopping with the relaxers and researching about ways to protect my natural hair texture, I became obsessive with my research and reading materials. There was just so much in regards to the science and overall history of Afro-textured hair that I had been oblivious to. Inevitably, this all manifested into a determination to continue on with this research through my work. I feel there are still so many negative connotations surrounding Black hair within the Black community itself. Even the conspicuous nature of “texturism” in all of these “natural hair movement” campaigns we see, gives a perfect example of what years of internalised self-hatred has done to our communities. The idea that we have moved passed holding European aesthetics in high regard is often far-fetched, when so often you see us using those aesthetics as the standard with which we measure our success.
There are still many psychological, sociological and linguistic aspects on the study of hair that have yet to be spoken about, which I feel hold the answer to our perceptions of self today. It is this very idea that serves as a daily reminder for me, that I still have much left to do.
Please tell us about some of your experiences of racism as a British Black living in London and how much have the multi-cultural influences impacted on your work?
Racism within the UK is unique in its own right and I often describe London as being a lone island in comparison to the rest of the UK. Racism, like various other forms of abuse, is not always loud or physical. It can be sly, passive-aggressive; if having not grown up here, its quite easy to miss. Situations like the hate fuelled campaign on Brexit remind us that there are many deep-rooted underlying issues. It’ll be in the language used in news articles that you read, or by your colleagues at work, little remarks said by your teachers at school and most evidently, in the overall lack of representation of Black people in the UK as a whole.
I feel that’s where I come into it; using my work to represent the under-represented, to speak on less spoken narratives and to continue research on untold histories.
How often does your ‘Irun Kiko’ series get compared to the work of the celebrated Nigerian photographer J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere?
Not compared to, but rather asked if he was an inspiration for the work, which was in a more unique way. I discovered Ojeikere’s works after the series had been photographed, after which I began to see my work in a new light. I started ‘Irun Kiko’ off as a study of hair in detail, and since found it’s a study that is never ending, with much left to still be explored.
You’ve fairly recently won the Renaissance Photography Prize (2015) and made the shortlist for the D & AD Next Photographer Awards. How have these awards impacted on your career?
If anything, they have made me more determined to keep progressing, keep moving forward and continue to aspire for more. It’ll always be an honour to see your practice being recognised, but it is just as easy to view yourself as “award-winning”, and forget that there is still much progression to be made. I’m looking forward to the journey ahead and the opportunity to continue developing my practice.
‘From Moussor to Tignon’ presents an interesting exploration of the history between the West and Africa through the head wrap. Were professional models used, or were some of them actually Afro-Creole?
These women, similar to the signares and Afro-Creole women who I had the chance to research about, were also very focused business women, in education and entrepreneurs within their fields. It was very important to me, the women who participated could relate to the research. I feel you can see this in the images. They were so poised, beautiful and regal to say the least. I remain grateful to each of these women, those in front of the camera, as well as behind it, who contributed their effort and time into making this all come together.
Some of the shots were taken in graveyards, were these final resting places of Afro-Creole descendants or those women of colour who protested in 1786, in response to Governor Esteban Miro’s oppressive decree to differentiate them from white women?
Yes indeed, these were their final resting places. Madame Barbara Trevigne an expert on the history of these very women, introduced me to the resting place of one woman of particular interest, Marie Lauvae, a renowned Voodoo priestess within New Orleans. A painting of Lauvae wearing a tignon served as one of my first research points, and it was warming to visit her. It was actually my first time ever visiting a cemetery, and it made it all real for me. When taking the images, I could definitely feel the energy; it was a strange, yet an inspiring moment.
As opposed to shooting in digital, you work on film, a mostly outdated and comparatively slow technique of photography. What challenges do you encounter in terms of materials and equipment, and do you find it limiting in getting your work to several collectors at a time?
I wouldn’t say I face any challenges in terms of materials, but rather in regard to facilities. Since graduating last year, I’ve realised how fortunate I had been in having a darkroom space to work in and develop my practice. I stock up my supplies as much as I can and try to have prints to hand also, in case of emergency situations.
I disagree with the idea that the film is outdated. It became less accessible yes, but film never died. We do indeed live in a digital age. Everything including family albums are digitalised now, and with this has come the depreciation of physical printing and archival methods. This in all honesty is such a shame; I find the art of the darkroom so important to the art form of photography. Of course, it is not everyone’s first choice; I know many people who hate it. I also understand that the lack of availability of materials and facilities is also an issue. However, I stand firm when I say every photographic artist, should at some point in their career, have exposure to more historic methods of processing images.
Your preference for film leaves no room for error. Several of your photographs are artificially aged. Does this reveal more than an interest in surface quality and texture?
The images are not artificially aged. “Artificially” would suggest that they were edited digitally or otherwise, to appear like that, which they are not. There is a chemical process which I put these images through during my developing process. It is a technique that I would like to say is unique to me.
One thing I enjoy about the use of film is that for every individual, there is a process to suit his/her own specific needs. Some prefer perfection, minimal grain and absolutely no dust marks. Whilst others enjoy light-leaks, double exposures and infrared films. The process of developing the film is an art form in itself, which I view in three parts; production, development and printing. At each stage you have the power to create your images using your own hands, and no image, roll of film, or print will ever be the same as the last. Those textures I choose to create are only unique to that moment, which makes it all special to me.
The idea of “error” does not exist for me, and I feel each image is a reflection of a chemical reaction I chose to apply. Things such as taking the agitation process too far, or not far enough, will happen. However, not once would I ever call those mistakes, rather a learning process of little quirks that are suited to my style and aesthetic.
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