In the world of fashion photography, the beauty of clothes and accessories is enhanced by great locations and intriguing storylines. Although this genre of photography allows viewers to step into stylish alternate universes, many artists are also drawing inspiration from real-life events and experiences that have shaped their existence, and it allows them to bring a refreshing form of self-expression to fashion photography. Whether it’s by challenging outdated gender norms, or promoting nonconformist youth subcultures, and putting a contemporary spin on the Y2K aesthetic, more and more African artists are embodying their recontextualised sense of identity through their work.
As far back as the 1940’s, Africans have used visual storytelling to chronicle the fashion of their time and accurately document cultural change through the years. The works of artists like Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe, James Barnor and J.D Ojeikere have long since captured the beauty of the continent for a global audience while documenting the ways in which people expressed a renewed sense of cultural identity in the post-colonial era, through fashion and style.
In this digital age, a growing crop of young Africans are now creating powerful work that tells engaging stories and builds a new narrative around diverse people and places on the continent. Merging influences from age-old traditions with elements of modern culture, their work defines what it means to be African through a progressive and creative lens.
With the help of striking subjects and elaborate styling, these visual artists are able to capture images that imbue culture and tradition into clothes, and express a unique personality and individuality through fashion. Black skin and traditional hairstyles are celebrated, artists use light, color and symbolism to form a narrative around themes like love, strength, unity and pride in one’s community. Our booming cultural scene also serves as fertile ground for creatives to draw inspiration from, and they’re using the opportunity to redefine the African identity away from the confines of a single, homogeneous narrative.
From intricate depictions of everyday life in Nigeria to portraits that draw on mystical themes from South Africa, take a look at 5 pathbreakers bringing their exceptional storytelling skills to the world of fashion photography.
A self-described son of the soil, Cape Town-based Imraan Christian is as much of an artist as he is an activist. After documenting the student uprising of 2015/2016 in South Africa, his work started to garner more recognition on the continent and beyond, culminating in his appointment as ambassador for the United Nations’ SDG goal of quality education, as well as commissions to shoot editorials for Nike and Highsnobiety amongst others. Christian’s work focuses on decolonization and innovation as the subject matter of choice, with the aim of empowering the youth to build the future they want to see. In ‘Ma Se Kinders’ (meaning “mother’s children''), his recent photo series which was showcased by Vogue Italia, the images follow a group of indigenous characters exploring themes of mythology and the duality of youth in the year 2023. Set in Hangberg, an indigineous community in Cape Town, the series is filled with deep-rooted context that shows Christian’s natural gift for visual storytelling.
A love for country meets the expansive use of color in images captured by Ghanaian visual artist, Prince Gyasi. Whether he’s shooting supermodels for magazine covers or telling hopeful stories of marginalized individuals in Accra, the 26-year old juxtaposes his subjects against brightly-altered landscapes and striking backgrounds to showcase the beauty of Black skin and explore human emotions that are tied to fatherhood, motherhood and childhood. In his recent shoot with Naomi Campbell for the Madame Figaro special cover edition, Gyasi included various subjects in vivid clothing alongside the model to capture the vibrancy of youth. And what makes his work stand out? It’s shot mainly on his phone. “I use an iPhone because I believe as an artist you can use whatever tool or equipment you have to tell your stories,” he explained at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in 2019. “I also use a lot of color because I want people to be mentally and emotionally healed by just looking at my images,” he added.
Apart from being a fashion photographer, Nigerian artist Daniel Obasi also works with different mediums like graphic design, styling and filmmaking, promoting African narratives through a variety of art forms. An outstanding moment in his career was working as a stylist on Beyonce’s visual album Black Is King, a project which accurately portrays the intention behind Obasi’s work—redefining what it means to be young, African and Black. His work challenges stereotypical notions of gender, sexuality and masculinity through fashion, featuring subjects who live fully and freely against the limitations of a conservative society. From styling magazine shoots and music videos to creating intriguing photo series with elements of Afrofuturism, Obasi’s unique approach tells a story that is worth immersing oneself into.
Drawing inspiration from the Nollywood aesthetic of the 90s and the effortless glamour of traditional style, Nigerian visual artist Ruth Ossai creates vibrant images that document life in Nigeria and showcase her Igbo identity. Born and raised in the South-Eastern part of the country, Ossai got her start in photography by taking portraits of her grandmother and cousins and recreating scenes from old Nigerian movies. Her proximity to family and storytelling skills came into play when she collaborated with fellow artists Akinola Davies Jr. and Ibrahim Kamara on a fashion film and photo series by Kenzo about youth culture in Igbo communities, titled Gidi Gidi Bụ Ugwu Eze (meaning Unity is Strength). Now based in West Yorkshire, Ossai stays close to her roots by featuring family members in her shoots and using hyper-stylized African studio backdrops in campaigns for brands like Fenty, Nike, and Mowalola.
I'm 25, 2020. Photo: via @ruthossaistudio
Fenty The Cameo Campaign. Photo: via @fentybeauty
New African Photography III, 2018. Photo: via Nataal Magazine
South African photographer and visual artist Trevor Stuurman started out by documenting style on the streets of Johannesburg, then capturing urban fashion while traveling across the continent. His big break came in 2012 when he was named style reporter for Elle South Africa, and since then he has shot editorials and campaigns for publications like British Vogue, Glamour, and Grazia, and his collaboration with Zerina Akers for Beyonce’s cinematic masterpiece Black Is King. In his carefully styled shoots, most of his subjects can be seen dressed in vibrant fashion from African designers with a color-saturated backdrop to match. This distinct style is Stuurman’s way of challenging Western stereotypes about Africa and promoting a better understanding of what the continent really is. This progressive outlook also reflects in his personal style which involves wearing locally made items daily. “Every time you support a local designer, you’re buying more than just a product,” says Stuurman in an interview with TIME. “You’re buying them time in the spotlight, that is—telling a new story about what Africa is, and what it can be.
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