At only 25, Nigerian-British photographer has exhibited her work at New Orleans, Texas and London. Also, gaining press from platforms such as OkayAfrica, Louisiana weekly and Blanc Modern Africa, she takes us on her journey of self discovery.
Juliana Kasumu is a vibrant individual, very accommodating but do not mistaken her for a push-over.
Having attended the Birmingham City university and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Visual Communications, she depicts the black woman, mainly of African descent, in a manner that leaves the viewer both inspired and questioning how much they actually know about the black woman.
Kasumu believes the term 'women of colour' is very outdated. Time is passing by really quick, with each generation evolving even further than the previous one. Kasumu believes it is time for black women to re-claim their place in society; not just as a black woman, but a woman of culture, confidence and strength.
I question and discuss how her projects came to be and I discover a part of my cultural roots I had been ignorant of.
"if you had a drop of black in your blood and you are black, thereby a person of colour. And that was important when trying to navigate the world because at the end of the day, there are people who are not black but are also minorities. "
Who is Juliana Kasumu?
“Oh God, that’s a terrible question [while smiling]. I feel that’s a big question to ask because I think I’m still in the process of trying to understand who I am.
So, I would say, as of this moment, I am a British-Nigerian photographer, I try to be someone who focuses on the idea of educating young female readers. So, I think to me, the joining of education and the joining of the arts is kind of, like a passion for me.
Ummm… so I got into photography because I was very much into psychology and I would like to think you can still see the psychology aspect in my work.
I picked photography as this very ‘easy- get the great subject’ but it turned out to be one of the hardest things for me. I had to adapt myself toward thinking creatively, especially because I grew up with the premise that the art is something that you don’t pursue. So, photography became this thing that I was so passionate about and so it just started evolving.
I continuously had this fear of – if I go down this route, will I successful? Will I make my parents proud? All this pressure, and I think I got to a point where I thought, this is about me and what I like and I am going to go off to uni and what do I want to learn more about and it was photography and film. ‘So I am not going to say that from when I was a young seven-year-old, I picked up the camera and there it was.’ I mean we did have this little film camera that we would take photos and I loved the process of going into Boots and getting them developed afterwards but it was never something that I would have ever imagined pursuing in my lifetime. It was at about the age of 17 to 18 is when I eventually went to university and studied it and it became clear to me that this is what I want.
And so, with Irun Kiko, it was a project developed out of my final major project and for me this became the catalyst to everything I’m doing right now. So, it wasn’t until that final year that I decided that, ‘Okay, yes, I do want to pursue photography and that’s how I grew into it.'
It is safe to say; majority of your photographic content is based and inspired by black women, especially the black African woman.
Can you elaborate on why you have chosen to explore the black woman in your work?
It comes from a very personal place, when I started off exploring my photography I was going off a different route based on the images that were around me. There were quite a few images around me, looking at magazines like vogue, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, at the time what you would often see is black women, who were often portrayed as ‘white’. So, living in the U.K., born and raised, I often felt like this built a disconnect and I think I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of the Yellow Sun at the time and this was possibly my second or first year at uni and I was ashamed to realise I did not know about the Biafra war [Nigerian Civil War], I thought it was all fiction. When I then researched more about the book, I found out that the Biafra war was real and I was surprised and asked myself, ‘what else do I not know about the history of Nigeria, of the place I am here making statements like, “I am from Nigeria and I am proud” and meanwhile, I had no idea of the things that were happening.
So, I went back and sis tons of research and I came across this historical information about our hair, black women and the empowerment of black women at the time.
During this research, during this process of finding out more, my thing them became;
I don’t want to say it’s my only focus, but I will say it is what I naturally gravitate to. It is something that comes naturally to me, not forced. It is something that has happened and is happening and I can’t help it.
As an individual whose job is to look, observe, analyse and capture, what are your thoughts on the term ‘People of colour’? Would you say it is an offensive term or accurate?
I don’t think it’s offensive. There are two sides to this;
There’s one side where, I understand there was a point in history where that term was really important because if you had a drop of black in your blood and you are black, thereby a person of colour. And that was important when trying to navigate the world because at the end of the day, there are people who are not black but are also minorities.
At the same time, I think we are in a time where it is even more tricky because even with the term ‘people of colour’, there is this social hierarchy where it says, if you are of a darker shade or colour then you are still underrepresented but the closer you are to being white, the more opportunities and privileges you have access to.
Sometimes, I feel there is a difference between a black person and a person of colour because there is a reason why it is a black person as opposed to a person of colour. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am offended but I do think it is a term that we are now in a place where we can let that term go and that is something I don’t want people to hold onto.
We can decide to say black person, brown person…etc. because I think ‘people of colour’ is an outdated term.
As a British Nigerian Photographer, who would you say makes up majority of your audience?
The audience question is always an interesting one because I just remember throughout my time at university, whenever you are doing a project, they always ask you who your audience is and why, And I always struggled with it because my work could attract anyone willing to learn, anybody interested in finding out more about black history. I think it can reach out to all races of all ages. It is important for the younger generations because I feel it is important for them to learn about historical events from a young age, so that the situation is not;
At the age of 18, they come to realise they do not know much, God forbid, I would hate that for my future children.
For someone who is older, they can unlearn certain things they have taken in and internalised – for a white person to understand the everyday struggles of a black individual but also not just the struggles, but the celebrations of black people and for black people, to see ourselves represented and empowered.
I think that question is more complicated because I do not know who my audience is, I feel anyone interested in learning about black history, African history, then that is who my content is aimed at.
From my research, I noticed you address matters like the social constructs and politics behind the black woman and exploring her natural hair and the various forms of the African black hair, as shown in your IRUN KIKO series. Please, do tell me more about your initial drive to kick-start this project and how you feel about it.
Like I said previously, that started off as me finding out all of this history and all this stuff I had no idea about and wanted to delve into it. And so, from the use of archives and a lot of books. Some of these books discussed hairstyles like, Irun Kiko and the traditional hair braiding others discussed hair styles like Irun Didi and Irun Biba. So, you have the hair plaiting and a mix between threading and plaiting.
And so, I found that before colonisation, these hairstyles were used to represent what tribe someone was from, what family they belonged to. Also, little details like, were you a house girl or a gate-man. If you were married you would wear a certain hairstyle and if you were not married there were certain hairstyles they would wear to pray for a husband, there were even certain hairstyles they could wear to sow they were angry at their husbands.
For me, that then became this passion project. I found out there were these gaps in history, archives that had been lost.
I then began to question how many people know about this, how much dialogue do we have relating to this. We are in a time now where, hair braiding and Afros and even Irun Kiko is seen as unattractive.
I showed people pictures of Irun Kiko, styled on a black woman, asking if they would wear this hairstyle today and their response were; “No. It’s ugly, it’s unattractive.” I even remember getting it done as a child and I thought “what is this rubbish, you want me to go to school looking like this?”
So, for me it is trying to remove that very negative connotation away from something that was once deemed magnificent and beautiful.
Also, now, bringing it back to things like ‘The Kardashians’ where there was a lot of controversy about cultural appropriation and questioning why they were wearing braids but when black women do it, it is seen as unattractive but when the white woman wears it, it is attractive. So, let’s take that back now bearing in mind that do we conform to those connotations of wearing braids is unattractive or do we rebel against it.
Saying “This is how we wear our hair, this is how we are and what we look like, we are going to own it.” That’s what the premise of Irun Kiko, learning to appreciate where we come from.
Would you say your work inspires through education or educates through inspiration?
I think when you start something, you never know how people are going to be inspired by it. In all honesty, when I started this project it was more about myself and what am I learning in the process. Again, like I said, I was going through a phase of self-discovery, natural hair transition and learning so much about hair, especially my hair and my identity.
It was a very personal thing. It wasn’t until I shared it with my friends (all my friends are actually models in the photos) and so when we opened up that dialogue, they found themselves relating to this and most of them did not know because they were Congolese, some Nigerian and it became this really interesting dialogue. I thought sharing this is very important because it’s going to open up conversation that we are not having and need to have more of. I would definitely say it is a mix of both.
It’s about educating but it’s also about inspiring through visual representation and I think the way I did the styled the hair in the photos is more like an updated/modern version of the hairstyles.
One thing that really touched me, about 2 years ago, I went to Texas and I had an Irun Kiko presentation collaboration with a fashion designer called Ruben Raphael.
He got his clothes and I did the Irun Kiko hairstyles and this lady came up to me, mentioning the fact that she saw the hairstyles and was so inspired by it that she went ahead and did it herself.
I remember being so touched to the point of tears. I didn’t think it would actually reach someone in that way that they are so inspired by it and receiving the message that you are delivering. There is nothing in this world that could ever top that feeling.
If you could work or collaborate with anyone, this could be a magazine or individual, who would it be?
Anyone? There is this organisation in Nigeria, it’s called Strong Enough Girls
They focus on helping and supporting young girls in Nigeria and empowering them through education and activities. So, my interest is female empowerment, especially for young girls.
With the generation that we are living in, there are people, like yourself, who are doing things to create representation and I think the way our kids are going to grow up is not going to be the same as we did.
I think there is a lot more awareness, and so for me, I feel that organisation is doing a lot of the work that I am very motivated by. With what they are doing and what I am trying to achieve, I think it will be good to work with them and to host certain workshops I photography and support them as well as those girls. I feel there is a certain power in creativity. That is what I am trying to push for right now.
What are your thoughts on the representations of black African women I today’s media platforms? i.e. film, photography…etc.
Like I said previously, within six, seven years… a lot has changed and just remembering my time at university in comparison to now, a lot of progress has been made. I admit, there is still a lot of work to do and a lot more awareness to be raised.
There is a lot more positivity when it comes to black African women but it is only because our women are taking their power back. We are creating our own platforms, not waiting for other people to do it for us.
The mistake we were making in the past is, we were waiting for somebody else to give us recognition and represent us but now we do not need you anymore, we are doing our own thing.
It’s been beautiful, the transition and been positive and interesting to witness. There is still a lot more work to do but I think we have gotten to a point where people are waking up.
Finally, what advice would you leave with your audience and my readers?
The one piece of advice that I will give is, DO NOT under any circumstances, stop creating work. One thing that I have learnt is, as you progress with your career, you find that you become more aware to certain things in the industry, be it photography, film, fashion, you go into it very excited and when you see the reality of it, you become very disheartened.
You begin to doubt yourself and lose that naivety that brings that drive and that is something that I have struggled with a lot. When I realised it was not as easy as I thought, I became demotivated and that’s very bad.
As long as you keep pushing and working hard, being consistent, your work will never be in vain. Try not to worry about what you have in your bank account, whether anyone is going to see it, just put your work out there and eventually, things will set off. Especially for Africans, we need more presentation, there is never going to be enough, so keep going.