In 2017, the impact of the African continent on British culture has been undeniable, record breaking musicians of the #Afronation forge their own narratives about modern Africa uninterrupted, while commercial fashion houses look to the traditions found in African culture for fresh inspiration.
When it comes to capturing an essence in style, Malick Sidibe, James Barnor and Charlie Phillips represent three of the most highly respected, frequently referenced and world renowned perspectives in fashion portraiture. It’s virtually impossible to discuss the concept of ‘black style’ without giving reference to the works of these three photographers. Since the 1950’s, they have been responsible for capturing some of the earliest and most original translations of what style means to everyday people and the art found in portraiture.
Nation of Billions new style editorial #StyleNation is a special moment. In our first cover story, Stylist Abena Ofei and Photographer Christina Ebenezer pay homage to the groundbreaking work of the forebears who have been able to capture the essence of black style for more than five decades. In the midst of Black History Month, we look at the ‘70’s aesthetic through a modern lens, in celebration of the children of the diaspora, who work to create contemporary black history while challenging the idea of limitations for minorities.
Having initially studied at art school Malick Sidibe, (born in Mali in 1936) began working in photography in ‘57, taking photos at parties at night. He sought to capture popular culture in his city, removed from the inherent prejudices cast upon ‘other’ cultures by the Western gaze; he caught on film the freedom and pride in Mali’s youth.
Jamaican born Charlie Phillips is another pioneering name whose work has blurred the lines between street photography and fashion portraiture. In 1956, when he moved to Britain, Phillips began documenting life in the local community, working as a freelance photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, Stern and Life, Phillips’ photographs depicted significant and everyday moments in Notting Hill’s history. His depictions of local men and women in Notting Hill’s burgeoning black community are among the best early examples of stylish black Britons from that era. Removed from contrived sets or elaborate fashion concepts Charlie Phillips’ work showed this budding black community, from Britain’s empire, beginning to settle in London. Creating their own identities through their choice in fashion in a bid to assimilate.
In 1947 James Barnor set up his Ever Young Studio in the Jamestown district of Accra in Ghana. Taking photos of the local community, Barnor amassed an extensive archive of street reportage. He spent the 1960’s in Britain, working as a photojournalist for the Daily Graphic and Drum Magazine capturing London’s march towards modernity as he went. His works are effortless in their portrayal of ever changing times and, when he returned to Ghana at the end of the decade, James Barnor went on to open the country’s first colour processing laboratory.
“My thing with menswear is people don’t feel like they can experiment as much”
With her portraiture, Fashion photographer Christina Ebenezer is constantly working to exploit the lines between fantasy and reality. Often using post production to perfect the final image, Christina always aims to play with expectation both on set and in the studio, “my thing with menswear is like people don’t feel like they can experiment as much. They don’t want it to look too ‘gay’ so they restrict it. And I feel like we should be able to experiment with guys. At the end of the day, guys have emotions too – it’s not just women that have emotions. So I feel like with my type of work, and with reference back to Malick [Sidibe] a lot of guys would be smiling, they’d look quite feminine in terms of their poses and stuff like that. That’s what I love because the female, she wasn’t always the main subject in the shot you know? With fashion – in terms of the history – it’s always ‘you’re just a guy that looks good, you’re in the back.”
It can be easy to take for granted our ease of access to high quality photography, mounted on every phone is the ability to capture moments, view, edit, then share instantaneously, “camera’s are good. Everyone’s got a good camera and everyone takes photos now. But, back in the day, going out to take photo and going to a party it was an event.” Christina explains. It’s the key difference that propelled Malick Sidibe to elite status in Mali, “I was at the studio until midnight or one in the morning until I went out to take photos at parties.” Malick said of his works back in a 2009 interview with American Suburb. “I would go back to my studio, develop the film, and on Mondays and Tuesdays I would hang the photos in my shop so young people could come and choose the ones they liked the most. My studio was always lively because all the young people would come to see photos of the parties. I got to know all of them, and today I still remember the faces and names of a majority of them.”
I talk with Christina about the realities of surviving in a creative industry that is all too often more about who you know, rather than the scale of your talent, “I feel like, especially with us as Africans, the creative industry is not a thing. To tell your parents you want to be a photographer or stylist or any type of creative direction – or even something in music – it’s not a thing. You’re supposed to be academic. So I feel like that was what was so symbolic about Malick’s work, I think that’s why people expressed themselves so much [at parties and through their choice in fashion] because at home, you go to school, you go to work. You do what you need to do. So for me, that’s what stands out. Especially when I’m shooting people of colour as well, learning to be yourself and learning to be comfortable in yourself is an important thing for me.”
James Barnor, Charlie Phillips and Malick Sidibe were capturing the youth of their day from the freshly independent nations in Africa to the growing black communities in 1960’s London, these photographers were able to capture moments in time of a people reaching out towards modernity. “It wasn’t so much our independence [in 1960] as it was Western music that changed many things during that time. Music was really the revolution because after 1957, rock music, hula-hoop, swing, etc., came to the country. Music was a true revolution in Mali. I began to photograph young people at parties after 1957, and then I went on to portraits since photography has a wide tradition in Mali.”
Malick said of his journey in photography back in 2009 “For people in my country, it’s important to have photographs of themselves to be able to show them to their family, their friends… It’s a kind of social gesture. Ever since the 1960s, I started to take photos in my own studio. Everyone went there because taking a portrait at that time was very inexpensive. More than anyone else, young people enjoyed having their photo taken in their best attire, with their new earrings, curled hair, showing off their best watch, their bracelets… Everyone likes to be beautiful in photographs.”
Beauty is fluid, depending on the eye of each beholder, but style will signal a static point in time. Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s black youth cemented their identities and signalled their worth through deliberate choices in style. “I think it’s important to reference and acknowledge where things have come before, but you don’t want to copy and replicate the same thing, so you need to evolve it” says stylist, consultant and menswear editor Abena Ofei , who has been an industry name for more than 15 years. Whether styling looks for Loyle Carner or Woody Harrelson, she deploys tone and texture in order to further enhance a particular visual narrative, “I set about using the clothes to tell a story. I like to mix different textures, as I think it often has a visceral impact – especially in menswear. Likewise exploring different tones often, and not being confined by any rules when it comes to colour.”
Explorations in colour is one contemporary advantage granted to children of the diaspora when it comes to fashion. But more than bold strides with colour, there are less restrictions generally about what ‘fits’ and what is ‘right’ in relation to black style, Abena explains her creative inspiration for the shoot; “The whole idea of this shoot was to kind of borrow the ‘70’s aesthetic, and evolve it so it still feels contemporary. Using lots of prints, clashing textures mixing and matching things that wouldn’t normally be considered to go together. But it’s also about imparting confidence as well because, whoever the wearer is – especially models – if they feel like you’re putting them in something that looks good, they make it believable and it works.”
When it comes to capturing colour as a photographer, Christina prefers understated glamour, “I don’t want a photo to look exactly as it did on that day I took it. I like using colour to create something unexpected. I don’t really like the pop of bright colour, I like to mute it. So in terms of today, we’re shooting on a blue backdrop – I’ll mute the colour and add a warmer tone to it, make it just a bit darker, so it’s softer. I just like to diffuse the colour, I don’t like a big bleed of colour because that’s just what it looks like on your iPhone. I don’t want things to clash too much and I always want stuff that will compliment the model’s skin tones as well.”
Since the turn of the millennium, leading designers in the west have cherry picked the least well known elements of the fashion found on the African continent and repackaged them for western audiences, “Fashion always references different continents and in the early 2000’s I think Africa became a place of discovery,” Abena explains. “People started discovering the African continent as a mood board and an inspiration board. Christopher Bailey from Burberry did a whole collection where he used African prints; and then you have people discovering Malick Sidibe and all of a sudden Africa becomes a place where people are ‘appreciating’ the culture, and trying to find out more and make it new.”
From Burberry to Gucci to Stella McCartney Western designers continue to turn to Africa’s historical relationship with expressive prints and texture when seeking fresh inspiration. “Because it’s relatively undiscovered [in western circles] people feel like those that have referenced it are the only ones. Glen Luchford’s Autumn ‘17 campaign for Gucci is all referencing Malick Sidibe, but unless you know Malick’s work, you wouldn’t know it’s Sidibe – instead everyone credits Luchford as being so innovative.”
‘Diversity’ may be the current buzzword, but on the ground the pace of change remains frustratingly slow for a lot of working models of colour, “One or two are the models du jour.” Abena explains when I ask about the contemporary landscape for models, “lots of people are scared to take a risk, so they’d rather stick to the tried and tested, which is a pity because there’s so many people out there that could be given a chance. Black models always find it hard because there’s just not that many on the board [at agencies]. If there’s one [model] that’s been shot already, the magazine or the other publication or whoever will go and find that same model, because of that first shot they saw. So there’s less room, less opportunities. This is the most amount of black models I’ve ever styled at one time, given the span of my career.”
Progress can be found then, but the pace is slow and the fashion industry is unforgiving – the room for error is diminished for some. It falls to us to carve out the opportunities for our culture because the world continues to look more uncertain with each day. Mistrust between communities and government institutions designed to protect them is an ever present reality and the task of documenting the beauty of our existence in their portraiture now falls to a new generation of creatives.
Cover Image: From Left to Right; Jamie wears: Graphic print shirt by Jijibaba; tartan check trousers by Gucci at MatchesFashion Malachi wears: Graphic print shirt by Jijibaba; loose-fit trousers by Topman Design. Elliott wears: Graphic print shirt by Levi’s Line 8; pinstripe trousers by AMI
Hair & Make Up: Rodial Skincare and NARS cosmetics
Photographer’s Assistant: Darryl Otten
Mac at AMCK Models
Elliott Jenkins at Established Models
Jamie Baah-Mensah at Nevs
Ike Nwachukwu at Supa Model Management
Malachi Dixon at Elite London
Olamide Ogundele at IMG Models
Leah Alexxanderr-Caine at Milk Management
Jijibaba / Gucci at Matches Fashion / Topman Design / AMI / Levi’s Line 8 / Bogdar / Arket / Qasimi / Cos / G.H. Bass & Co / Theory / Woven / Agnés B / Prada at Matches Fashion / Canali / Billionaire / Falke / BerluV/ Harrys of London / Shushu / Tong / Duke + Dexter / Burberry / Uniqlo Maison Kitsuné / Levi’s / Marni / Brooks Brothers / Dsquared2 /McQ by Alexander McQueen / Glenmuir at www.sockshop.co.uk /Pringle of Scotland at www.sockshop.co.uk / Weekday h\p / Oliver Spencer / Dita