Female in Focus: “Willingness for change, and honesty, will move the photography industry forward”

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Our next Female in Focus is Ngadi Smart. Her portraits, often of subjects with a striking sense of style, examine how people express their identity through both fashion and their surroundings. Combining photography and illustration, Smart’s work is rich with colour, pattern and personality.

Ngadi Smart is a West African multi-disciplinary artist who has moved between Sierra Leone,  the UK and Canada. This has given her an international and expansive worldview that radiates throughout her work. However, her West African roots remain at the forefront of her work, and much of her photography interrogates themes of identity, sexuality and feminism through an African lens. By deconstructing mainstream portrayals of the continent, Smart challenges Western perceptions of African cultures.

Smart’s work is motivated by the misrepresentation of black people of colour; their varied, vibrant and broad cultures, as well as feminism and gender roles. Through art, she reconsiders what it means to be considered ‘normal’ or ‘beautiful’.

We spoke to Smart in light of Female in Focus, a new award that seeks to more bring diverse perspectives into the world of photography.

© Ngadi Smart, from the series Longing and Belonging

Much of your work explores self-identity, feminism and sexuality, through an African lens. Can you tell me about your interest in each of these themes?

I come from a family of strong, proud Sierra Leonean women. My Grandmother is one of my biggest inspirations, and she always treated her daughters and sons as equals, even though that was not really the norm in our culture. No man or traditional African societal view was going to change her beliefs, and that has always really stuck with me.

I think African culture has made major changes in its idea of what the ‘ideal African woman’ is, but there is still an underlying expectation of what women (and men) should be. I think female and male characteristics are a lot more intertwined emotionally and physically than people think. For me, the best way to challenge gender roles is through visual imagery.

When it comes to self-identity, I have always been interested in how people choose to present themselves, and their personality, to the camera lens. I think there is something fascinating in how contrasting yet uniform self-identification can be.

© Ngadi Smart, from the series Longing and Belonging

How do you think people can use creative outlets to reclaim their own narratives, particularly in regard to subverting Western perceptions of Africa?

What is undeniably exciting is that we now have all the tools as African creatives to tell our own story, our own way, and to reach an audience. However, I think that it is important to remember that we do not need to specifically focus on changing stereotypes of what being African is through our visual storytelling; I think that’s an additional burden that other artists from other continents are not expected to subscribe to. I do think that through our visual storytelling, whatever theme or medium we choose, as well as the quality of our work, we already do so much to challenge external perceptions of the African continent.

Why do you think it is important that we see more photography from a broad range of perspectives?

The entire world is a network and melting pot of people from different backgrounds, opinions, cultures, genders and religions. I think photography should reflect exactly that. I sometimes see photography as a mirror that gives us an insight into experiences elsewhere, which could be similar, or not, from our own.

© Ngadi Smart, from the series Amorphophallus Aphyllus for the Nice Magazine

How has living and studying in multiple locations – the UK, Canada and the Ivory Coast, informed your artistic practice?

I was born in London, United Kingdom, and I am of Sierra Leonean descent. When I was 6 months old, my family moved to Côte d’Ivoire, and we lived there until I was about 11 years old. I then moved back to the UK for several years, before moving to Toronto, Canada. I also lived in Tunisia for a short amount of time during my teens.

I think that all of those places have definitely made me more open to different cultures, lifestyles, and most importantly, people. I think you can see the interest I have for others in my photography, particularly in the topics I choose for my documentary photography, which is mainly portraiture. As an artist, it is important to be open, as you never know what could speak directly to you, challenge you, and inspire you.

What advice do you have for female photographers looking to break into the industry?

Know yourself, understand the message you are trying to convey through your work, and target the right contacts through that.

Female in Focus is calling for exceptional photography by women. Want to win a group show at United Photo Industries gallery, New York? Apply today! Applications close 9th May 2019, 23.59 UK time.

© Ngadi Smart, from the series Amorphophallus Aphyllus for the Nice Magazine
© Ngadi Smart, from the series Amorphophallus Aphyllus for the Nice Magazine
© Ngadi Smart, from the series Longing and Belonging
© Ngadi Smart, from the series Ramy
© Ngadi Smart, from the series The Faces of Abissa
© Ngadi Smart, from the series The Faces of Abissa