The British-Nigerian photographer Juliana Kasumu explores contemporary issues relating to West African culture. Born in London in 1992, Kasumu’s interest in the subject came from the desire for a greater and more comprehensive understanding of her African heritage – “a cultural history which was not taught in the schools I attended, or even easily accessible when conducting research”. She continues, “I attempt to bring attention to groups of first generation individuals like myself, often feeling out of place in the country they were born in, trying to make their way back to their motherland”.

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Irun Kiko

A recurring theme for Kasumu is the relationship between African women and their hair. While undeniably beautiful, her work goes beyond documenting the aesthetics and unique intricacies of African hairstyles, but rather seeks to trace the political and cultural origins of these hair statements. Kasumu speaks of her drive to bring these often forgotten narratives to the forefront, and each of her projects is the result of extensive historical research. “Discovering how detrimental the effects of colonialism have been on the black woman and how she self-identifies, push me to do more” she explains.


Irun Kiko

In her series Irun Kiko, named after a distinctive style worn by women of the Yoruba tribe, Kasumu presents “modern renditions” of traditional African hairstyles, while examining “ways in which these women conform to, or rebel against Western ideals of beauty while reclaiming African heritage”.

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Irun Kiko
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Irun Kiko

From Moussor To Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie

From Moussor To Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie, is a continuation upon these themes. In this series Kasumu explores the symbolism behind head wraps worn by women of colour. Investigating the origins of the head-tie in New Orleans, she reveals how this style statement in fact originated from a shocking act of oppression, as in 1786 Louisiana the law stated that “gens de couleur” (free women of mixed race) were required to cover their hair to distinguish themselves from white women.

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From Moussor To Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie

The Next Generation

Meanwhile, the series The Next Generation depicts portraits of young women with untouched, natural afro hair, and implores “mothers with memories of being told their hair was ‘bad’ and ‘unattractive’” to instead instill their children with a sense of “pride and love” for their natural hair.

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The Next Generation
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The Next Generation

INFRINGE spoke to Juliana Kasumu about past and future projects and what her own hair means to her.

How did you get into photography?
I started off taking it at sixth form to fill in the time as I concentrated on other A-levels such as Psychology, but it ended up being the one which most challenged me. I had to think in a completely different way than I was used to. The last 2 years have been pivotal to the direction of my photography. The decision to refocus my photography on my identity as a British-Nigerian, femininity and the less spoken narratives of West African heritage, remains my motivation to keep pushing.

 

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Irun Kiko

Who are some of the artists who inspire you? You have previously mentioned J.D Ojeikere and his iconic Hairstyles series, where do you see your work in relation to this? As an extension of this conversation?
I always revisit Carrie Mae Weems and her unforgettable Kitchen Table series. I sometimes mediate on it as a reminder to keep portraying the stories of black women, keep portraying stories of myself. Because who better to tell my truth, than me? Other late greats, such as Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe are photographers, who for me, were visionaries of the merging of art and fashion. It’s so funny, because with J.D’s work, I actually saw his images in-between shooting mine. I will say though that this wasn’t really a continuation of a conversation, because in some ways the conversation around the underlying symbolisms of these hairstyles, the messages that were once so important have been lost within contemporary society and not been spoken on enough.

What does your own hair mean to you? Has its meaning changed since you began exploring the subject?
Yes, without a doubt. Honestly, this all started out of curiosity for my own hair in its natural state, without chemicals. I was going through a stage of trying to understand who I truly was as an individual and the conversation of double-consciousness as a British-Nigerian came into play. I became so obsessed with my hair and questions of identity; eventually stumbling upon all this history about West African hair methods. Discovering how detrimental the effects of colonialism have been on the black woman and how she self-identifies, push me to do more. Once I gained an understanding of who I am, what my truth is, only then could I begin to heal the internalised self-hatred I had once experienced.

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From Moussor To Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie

What’s up next?
I feel that the cross-over with all of these projects is never-ending. I still have so much I need to explore, uncover, historical research that needs to be done. Expanding the conversation on hair and identity, opening it up for further investigation, is something that I feel will never end for me. This is such a universally relatable topic, and I feel like I have only just touched the surface.

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This Next Generation
Credits

Images Juliana Kasumu Website Julianakasumu.co.uk
Interview Emma de Clercq

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