‘Reclamation of the Exposition’ by Nigerian Photographer, Tayo Adekunle, explores the commodification, fetishisation and sexualisation of the black female body, specifically through the human displays in the 18th and 19th centuries. Images of naked black African women were taken and displayed in magazines and publications such as ‘The National Geographic’ amongst others for centuries, under the guise of being for scientific and educational reasons. These images however, served as a form of pornography for many white Western men, which consequently stripped these women of their identities and diminished them to nothing more but a spectacle.
We interviewed Tayo to find out a bit more about the inspiration behind her work and how the image-making process was for her. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarification.
Anne: What inspired your body of work, ‘Reclamation of the Exposition’?
Tayo: This whole project came about because I was doing research for my dissertation, and I was looking at Colonial Photography. I was talking about how notions of black female and sexuality were established and have been perpetuated and continued through various forms of visual culture. This whole exoticisation and turning the black female body into a spectacle because it looks different and the serious objectification are things that I have dealt with in my own life, but I guess that one of the things that drew me to this subject the most is because I identified with some of these women. The way that they were treated then, is so similar to the ways that back women are still being treated nowadays.
Anne: Were there any moments during the image-making process that were triggering for you?
Tayo: Yeah definitely. It was a weird process of unlearning a lot of behaviours that I had been taught through cultures that I have lived in and which have inevitably resulted in some sort of self-hatred. Making these images, even photographing myself naked, forced me to look at my body every day and come to terms with what it looks like. I had to learn to love my body and not care about the way it looked so much, and through my research, there were definitely some tricky weeks where I had to take a break from the things that I was researching. I could see them in my life, and it was quite upsetting to identify first hand with what these people were talking about. I also felt hopeless in a sense of, these are things that have been spoken about for over 200 years and it is still happening, so will things really get better?
Anne: Was the experience cathartic in a way?
Tayo: Yes, It definitely led me to love myself so much more now, going through that research and also the act of taking pictures of myself. The fact that it was self-portraiture made me the target of my own criticism which was hard at first, but then It definitely got a lot easier. This sense of hopelessness kind of motivated me to do what I felt was doing justice to the figures that had inspired the work that I was making. It is one of the first projects that I have been seriously invested in because there are messages that seriously need to be told in a way that everyone can understand, not just academics. So it was definitely cathartic and it helped me to negotiate a lot of issues in myself and understand the world a lot better.
Anne: Yeah, and for you, how important is it to address these notions in photography?
Tayo: I think it is incredibly important! I've noticed that when I tell my friends about what I am talking about, they realise that sometimes, indirectly they were encouraging these types of behaviours. Some people are just not aware of how complicit they are in issues such as exoticisation and othering. I see people who want to make photography projects on communities outside of their own and they sometimes haven’t really taken the time to insert themselves into the community and gain their trust, and then there is this huge amount of othering that takes place with them also not being told that what they are doing is wrong. You are not giving these people a voice, they already have a voice, it's just not being listened to, so using these peoples pain for your gain is extremely unethical. There have been quite a few difficult conversations, but in the end, people have realised what I am talking about, and that I am not trying to target anyone. These are real people and real lives that you are talking about, they are not just the next paycheck, and these are things that people really need to be conscious of, but unfortunately, it is not spoken about much.
Tayo Adekunle is a Nigerian Photographer based in Scotland who makes work on themes such as the objectification of the black female body. To view more of her work, visit her website.