Ima Mfon on the Nigerian Identity
by Ladun Ogidan
Ima Mfon’s work explores issues of social and cultural identity. He holds a B. A in business administration in management information systems from the University of Texas, Austin. Although Mfon was interested in photography from an early age, he only recently pursued it, quitting his job in IT consulting to earn a Masters in photography at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.
A recipient of the 2015 Lensculture Emerging Talents Award, Mfon’s recent series ‘Nigerian Identity’ challenges pre-conceived ideas about identity, class, and place in society by contextualising his subjects in a uniform manner, against a white seamless background. The series has been featured on CNN and also exhibited at major art fairs and festivals including the 2015 Lagos Photo Festival, and Miami Pulse Art Fair. In addition, Ima Mfon has participated in many significant exhibitions including those at the Klompching Gallery in New York City, the San Francisco Camerawork Gallery, and the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography.
When did you first consider yourself a professional artist?
For me, an artist is someone who expresses himself or herself through a given medium. I started to regard myself as an artist when I noticed that taking on photography jobs (commissioned portraits and events) left me with a yearning for something more; it became important for me to convey a piece of myself through my photography. I don’t recall exactly when this first happened, but it was around the time when I made a shift from making images of things, to making images about things.
Your series ‘Nigerian Identity’ depicts bare-shouldered subjects photographed in high-key and high-contrast light, against a borderless white background. What is the inspiration behind this?
‘Nigerian Identity’ has so many layers to it; but the inspiration came from wanting to explore my own identity as a Nigerian without focusing on many of the typical themes that Western audiences tend to expect from African photography. The bare shoulders in my images serve a dual purpose: firstly, they strip away any context that could be implied through clothing (for example, income level, occupation and tribe) thereby forcing my viewers to focus on the person and try to connect with them on a less superficial level. Secondly, the bare shoulders represent a form of nakedness and vulnerability, which is often how I felt as a black man living in America. In those days, I would often find myself in situations where I was the only black person in the room, and people would look at me differently, as if the only thing they saw was my black skin. There are so many other themes buried in these seemingly straightforward portraits, but a mentor of mine always advised me to hide secrets in my images: things that were there just for me. ‘Nigerian Identity’ is full of these secrets and that is why this series is so special to me.
In another series ‘Unmasked’, you again strongly focus on identity. What personal experiences inform your work?
‘Unmasked’ was the prelude to ‘Nigerian Identity’. In this series, I was covering myself up and slowly unravelling my façade, while in Nigerian identity I throw off the mask and I bare all my emotions in the loudest way I could think of. Much of my work is informed by my personal experiences on the road to enlightenment. I am constantly searching for my God-given purpose, and learn new things each step of the way. As these lessons shape me and become a part of my psyche, they also reflect in the work I produce.
In what other ways has shuttling between the United States and Nigeria impacted on your work, for example, the selection of themes?
When I lived in the United States, I cared strongly about race and racial issues. Racism obviously isn’t as big of an issue in Nigeria, so I naturally began to explore other themes that had a more direct impact on life in Nigeria. I think being here has also given me more of an opportunity to educate my American audience on Nigerian customs and pop culture. I try as much as possible to incorporate a Nigerian perspective into my Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat posts. We definitely have a unique perspective in this country, and I am happy for the opportunity to show that to other parts of the world that may not understand or appreciate our art yet.
What in your opinion does the growing development of photography across Africa portend for the continent?
Photography’s proliferation is a big win for us as Africans because we get to tell our own stories! And thanks to social media, we can deliver our narratives directly to any corner of the world. I also think that in the future, photography will play a huge part in taking the Afrofuturism movement to the next level, and I am excited about this.
Is there any future project you would like to share with us?
You may have seen one of my images which shows a chocolate covered hand holding a strawberry. I am working on a body of work around similar concepts. I have a huge interest in chocolate, it is a strong metaphor for a many things. That’s all I can say for now.
January 15, 2021
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