Uplifting narratives of West-African Womanhood through the lens of Juliana Kasumu
Juliana Kasumu’s photography details a journey of self discovery; one that is unique to her as a British-Nigerian, a black female artist, and a member of a diasporic community that continues to reclaim its identity from centuries of institutionalized erasure.
A graduate of Birmingham City University’s Visual Communication program, Kasumu’s photography unearths and uplifts narratives of West-African womanhood with a confident and curious lens - looking specifically at the intersections between women, fashion and the politics that highlight the complexity of an often-oversimplified culture.
Her first project post-graduating: Irun Kiko received widespread acclaim - most notably the 2015 Renaissance Photography Prize for Best Single Image, as well as being shortlisted for the D&AD Next Photographer Awards. The project explores the history and symbolism of traditional West African hair statements through a series of powerful black and white portraits. Beautifully composed and carefully executed, these images quickly conjure thoughts of the late [great] J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere and his iconic series Hairstyles. However while the two align thematically, Kasumu’s work remains distinct, channeling her unique style and perspective to reimagine these hair statements in a modern context. In each image the focus shifts between hair and model, shedding light on the current dialogue between people of color and traditional west african style that takes place in contemporary society. Simultaneously Kasumu gives agency to these hair statements, allowing form to fully embody its symbolism as braids become crowns, twists become pathways, and a liminal space is created allowing this history to exist and flourish - with each detail not only illuminated, but celebrated.
Following the success of Irun Kiko, Kasumu’s most recent project From Moussor to Tignon takes a similar path - exploring the history and symbolism of another iconic element of West African style: The Headwrap. The title here refers to a specific segment of a larger chronology: the journey of the headwrap from its origins in Western Africa to the United States. “Moussor” is the term for headwrap in Senegal and “Tignon” later became the same for black communities in Louisiana. The images themselves specifically depict an important episode in New Orleans’ history, where an oppressive edict was put forth by a Spanish army officer and governor. This edict decreed that all Black women (freed and enslaved) must cover their hair - uniforming a once diverse array of hairstyles. Ultimately this only backfired when the designs and patterns employed by the women in their headwraps proved just as captivating and unique as the hairstyles they attempted to outlaw. This project poignantly emphasizes how within each embellishment and style of headwrap lies a history of tradition, selfhood and [in this case] resilience. These details, patterns and styles elegantly blend with the ethereal light and texture of Kasumu’s prints, immersing the viewer in a profound moment of strength and selfhood for the black woman.