Ones To Watch 2021: Tayo Adekunle

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of over 450 nominations. This artist is also one of five talents selected for Futures, a Europe-based platform bringing together the global photography community to support and nurture the professional development of emerging artists across the world.

“Our current notions of gender, language, spirituality, religion, time – all of it – is a white construction.”

“This isn’t how the world is meant to be,” explains Tayo Adekunle, referring to the dominating global influence of western society and culture. “It’s melancholic. These sociocultural structures are artificial, created by white men a long time ago. Realising they aren’t the default is a shattering of perception.”

© Tayo Adekunle.

Raised in Wakefield and now based in London, Adekunle graduated with a BA in photography from the Edinburgh College of Art last summer. Her graduate series, Reclamation of the Exposition, is an act of retelling. The artist recreates 19th century photographs of sensationalised Black bodies, images that highlight the blurred line between racialised pornography and ‘scientific’ ethnography. Photography, especially that from the latter days of New Imperialism, has an uneasy history with the Black body. In Reclamation of the Exposition, Adekunle uses her body as a tool, complicating the understood notions of artist, subject, viewer and maker. In these images, everything is subjective.

© Tayo Adekunle.

Adekunle investigates western history and the ever-present colonial gaze. In her newer works, her focus turns to a reclamation of her own Nigerian culture. “I was researching slavery and its wider history, trying to find out as much as I could about Nigeria pre-colonisation,” she explains. The British occupied Nigeria in the mid-19th century, and the country remained under colonial rule until independence in 1960. For Adekunle, Black history is not just a subject of the past but a shifting, atemporal space. However, due to the systematic erasure of culture across the African continent, sustained over many decades, attempting to piece together pre-colonial ideals can be biased and conflicting.

Colonialism’s subjugation of Black Africans was not just physical – European colonisers worked to destroy and rewrite native language, history and stories, attempting to further dehumanise the native population. “I was reading about Nigerian deities, trying to tap into my culture a bit more,” Adekunle says. “Women were high-ranking members of society [before colonial rule]. There is realisation, through a lot of research and searching, that our current notions of gender, language, spirituality, religion, time – all of it – is a white construction.”

The curator, editor, lecturer and consultant Zelda Cheatle nominated Adekunle for BJP’s Ones to Watch. “Investigating cultural icons from her own ancestry, in this era of decolonisation, is very astute,” she says of Adekunle. “Her use of photography as a medium to express is paramount.”

© Tayo Adekunle.

Adekunle’s latest work draws on Nigerian spirituality, especially that of the Yoruba people, one of the largest African ethnic groups south of the Sahara. Using photography, Adekunle seeks to explore Yoruba culture, interrogating the medium’s claim to objectivity to further question what constitutes real and fictitious. Considering the archive of colonial-era images, we find the camera’s claim to truth is flawed: interpretation, erasures, and retellings saturate the story presented. By using the same medium that historically subjugated Black people, Adekunle relocates a lost history, a connection to her ancestry. In one image, she poses as Yemoja [opposite], the Yoruba maternal deity. Yemoja is the mother of all, a nurturing and ancestral healer. “For me, it’s a way to explore the inherited trauma, and I’m using her to navigate the world we live in now,” she says.

© Tayo Adekunle.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.