International Women’s Day : Two questions to Juliana Kasumu, photographer.
She was reading a book on the Biafran civil war, when Juliana Kasumu became curious about her roots. A quest that the young photographer born in London to Nigerian parents, reflected in her work. The result is Irun Kiko, a series of photographs depicting the art of African hairstyle in all its splendor. Interview.
When she enters this Caribbean restaurant in the Brixton area of London in which she gave us an appointment, the first thing you notice is her smile. A bright and beautiful smile, that lightens up her whole face. Juliana Kasumu is radiant. The 23-year old photographer has a good reason to celebrate. She has won a prize, the Renaissance Photography Prize, the first of her career. The photo that won her the title, displayed at the Getty Images Gallery in London, just a stone’s throw from the famous Oxford Street, is part of the project Irun Kiko, after the name of an African hairdressing technique.
Photography was not a mapped out path for the young autodidact who was destined instead to study psychology. An interest which is easily found in her work. Juliana looks beyond what the eye can see to capture the essence of beings, things, through image. This is reflected throughout the project Irun Kiko, a series of 23 pictures of women wearing different African threaded-hairstyles.
“It’s funny to see that today, African hairstyles are back in fashion! “, she admits. ” It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe but what interests me is what lies behind, the cultural meaning and the story that it tells. “
The question of identity is omnipresent in the work of the young photographer. In this quest for a meaning, a culture, a balance, it’s also the loose fragments of her own story that Juliana seeks to restore. Like many children of the diaspora, the young woman, a pure product of South East London where she was born and grew up, does not know much about that distant Nigeria from which her parents originated. It was through reading the novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, that she first heard about the Biafran war. (The Biafra civil war caused more than a million deaths between 1967 and 1970, and has moved much of international opinion.)
“It was a shock to me! “ recalls the photographer. ” I immediately called my mother to ask her! There she told me everything, that she was 7 years old at that time … I asked her why she had never told me about it ? How could I have grew up without knowing my own story? From there I started doing my own research, it was like a new passion burning inside me, I read everything I could on the subject, sometimes until late at night “ …
Since then, Juliana, who might as well be called by her Nigerian name, Oluwatosin (God is worthy of praise in Yoruba), was able to visit twice this country, source of all her questioning. Two short trips “as a tourist” that leave her hungry for more. Today, the young woman is contemplating the idea of living there for a few years. “Growing up, I realize that I feel more Nigerian than British. One day I had a conversation with a man in a restaurant who assured me that I was not Nigerian because I was born in London. I asked him ‘How dare you?’ I am a Nigerian girl, period! ” she says, outraged. On a business basis, relocating to Nigeria would also be the avenue for establishing professional contacts: “After all, my work is really oriented towards this public.”
Being an artist is not an easy choice, and even less when growing up in a nigerian family where graduation is crucial, if not vital. For a long time, Juliana’s parents didn’t really believe in her vocation: ‘Why can’t you be an accountant? an engineer? ‘, they said. “When I won the Renaissance Photography Prize, I waved it at them, saying: ‘You see? You see? I won a prize’! Gradually they are learning to accept my talent, they understand what I do”, says the prizewinner. Even though from time to time, some aunties or cousins will still ask her to come and take pictures on birthdays and weddings, promising 10 pounds in exchange for the services! “This is why it is very important to have friends around me who believe in my work, a support system to cheer me up when my family fails to do so”.
She definitely needs support, the talented Juliana, young by age but who sees herself as an “old soul”, sometimes feeling out of phase with the aspirations of her generation. With always at the heart of her concerns, the question of identity and roots. “Having two cultures is an asset that we must capitalize. We need to teach the younger generation where they come from! Unfortunately very few of us are interested in our own history”.
A gap that she intends to correct. Just last month, the young woman whose time is divided between work and school (she aims at a Masters in Photography) made time to go and discuss art and multiculturalism in front of an audience filled with young americans at a conference in San Antonio, Texas. “With every new project I start, it’s somehow me trying to educate myself, but also trying to educate others “, explains the one that you can find on social media under the nickname of Love Kasumu. ” A form of signature I guess, a way to send love”