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“I want to show the different ways to be a black or African person”

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A new commission by WaterAid and 1854 will see Ngadi Smart explore Freetown’s complex water supply problems and what it’s young people are doing about it. 

Engaged with photography, design and illustration in equal measure for the past several years, Ngadi Smart describes her work as an exploration into black sexuality and the “different ways it means to be a black or African person.” All of Smart’s work speaks a simple truth: Black people need to be seen in all their multiplicity.  

Although of Sierra Leonean heritage, Smart was born in London. She currently divides her time between London and Cote d’Ivoire but has also counted Toronto and Tunisia among others as her home. It’s safe to say that she has lived in more continents than most people of her age. This nomadic background, which has given her an “openness” to different cultures and people, heavily influences her work on African diasporic identity today.

© Ngadi Smart.

It was while being back “on The Continent” – as she refers to Africa – that Smart “really started to create work more related to [her]”. Turning the camera figuratively inward on herself, she began to use the lens as a space for reclamation. “Sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, and LGBTQ issues aren’t talked about enough in West Africa. These are topics that need to be talked about,” she says. The photographer has since had her work featured in a number of prestigious publications, including Vogue Italia, Atmos Magazine, and I.D Magazine.

As someone who is already immersed in the community, Smart makes work from within. “I would rather someone who is African and on the continent talk about it than somebody who isn’t,” is how she sees it. This positionality allows her to capture both the struggles and the resilience of her subjects while also increasing awareness and, more importantly, pride around queer and LGBTQ+ communities.

© Ngadi Smart.

Smart’s images are both symbols of rebellion and recognition of change. Beautiful men and women free from both the male, heteronormative and colonial gaze, are draped in weighty jewellery, pose in lavish costumes and confront the camera with painted faces. “I’m very interested in demystifying the Other because we have been subjected to that for centuries,” Smart comments. Her work goes some way to demystifying this by contributing a new pictorial history, one that is underpinned by both intimacy and defiance. 

The newly-launched WaterAid Climate Commission in collaboration with 1854 will give Smart the time and space to visit her native country of Sierra Leone and document the daily struggle over the lack of cleanwater in the capital of Freetown and other provinces. Smart will look at how increasingly erratic and intense rainfall combined with inadequate city planning and sanitation is polluting water supplies, and what young people are doing to try to find solutions. The WaterAid Climate Commission was open exclusively to 1854 Access Members, plus any photographers from low to middle-income countries, including those where WaterAid works. Sierra Leone is one of these places. Smart had already formulated plans to travel to her native country and connect with her identity before the world was placed under lockdown. Now, with the commission secured, she’ll be able to spend two months on what she excitedly calls her “biggest project yet.” 

© Ngadi Smart.

When asked what she wishes to achieve with the commission, the photographer doesn’t hold back: “I want to show the country in a different light. When people think of Sierra Leone, they think of war but there’s so much more to it. It’s time to change the way we’re portrayed.” For Smart, the new WaterAid commission will allow her to do just that. Does she feel any pressure to portray her subjects in a more honest way? Not so much. “It’s all come full circle: I start every project by thinking how I can show this in a different light. Perhaps this changes people’s perceptions or stirs something in someone’s life. Hopefully it reaches someone.” 

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@ngadismart

The WaterAid Climate Commission is a collaboration between Studio 1854 and WaterAid. Want to work with major brands and NGOs on compelling, cause-conscious campaigns? View our current commission opportunities.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.

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