Artists Chin We and Mario Washington-Ihieme on culture, identity and celebrating Black women
Visual artist Chin We has said before “I adore the human experience – we are all that we have”. If there’s one way to encapsulate her work, it’s certainly through the framework of humanity.
A self-taught photographic artist, she was born in Manchester and spent her formative years in Nsukka, Nigeria. Through visual storytelling and portraiture, she’s spent her career exploring identity, culture, heritage and representation, primarily through the Black African diaspora. “My identity draws me to document the human experience.”
She’s an artist with already significant accolades; she’s a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts and her work has been showcased on CNN, who named her as one of the leading heroine African women photographers. This October and beyond, Chin We is focusing in particular on showcasing the artwork of Black women, hosting IFE NKILI, an annual Black women’s arts festival celebrating the beauty of Black culture, identity and heritage. She tells me that “‘ife nkili’ is an Igbo phrase which means ‘beauty to behold’. IFE NKILI provides a space to celebrate, showcase and honour what Black women creatives and artists do. It is very important to me as an artist to showcase the beauty of Black culture, identity and heritage.”
One of the women showcasing her work through IFE NKILI is photographer Mario Washington-Ihieme, whoseartwork is a documentation of the Black Lives Matter protest which took place in London on 7th June 2020 . She tells me “the work is paired with accompanying dialogue. Engagement in the work takes the form of remembering the murder of George Floyd and its transcendence across the Atlantic, the wakeup call for our nation to address the racism that still exists today in our institutions, and the importance of protesting and how it has always been a fragment of British society.”
Despite the daunting challenge of countering anti-Blackness, where we can often feel like we are fighting the battle on our own, there is a wonderful source of racial solidarity found in Mario’s work . “What struck me most about the protest was not the abundance of people as a whole, but rather the abundance of white allies/counterparts/whatever the right term is for them who attended. I’ve been attending protests centering injustices towards Black Brits since 2015 and hadn’t seen anything like this”.
The art world often feels elitist and very much a gate-kept industry. A mainstream gallery or exhibition I attend will often be showcasing art through a white, western and (of course) male perspective. Mario is straight to point when I ask her why she thinks art festivals that centre Black women specifically are important. “I’m tired of seeing work that talks about us not being produced by us. In the case of documentary photography and particularly the Black Lives Matter protests, I noticed that some images of the protests in the US & UK were published in publications or news agencies by photographers far removed from the situation. Whilst I understand that this is part of their job, it was the irony of the situation that got to me.” Black women being the subject of art, but never the artist behind the lens, can make a significant difference to how we are portrayed.
Mario adds, “I believe that it is important for our work to be highlighted because it gives younger Black women and girls confirmation that they too can produce meaningful work and make an impact in their community – or at a national and global scale. I hate to keep banging on the same drum, but representation does matter. I can count the number of Black-British female photojournalists and documentary photographers with my two hands… just about.”
The importance of showcasing Black women’s art is clear for Chin We. “It reminds us all of how Black women and the art that they produce are for the community, the society and the world at large and should be celebrated as such. IFE NKILI seeks to deconstruct the perceptions of Black women in art, photography, music, film and literature. The focus is to promote, develop and celebrate creativity in different genres. I feel that Black women have a more challenging time in the art industry as a whole and that is why I created IFE NKILI, a space to uplift the voices of creativity of Black women.”
The concept of Black joy as the Black diaspora continue to face stark challenges feels important; a remedy to soothe and counter these hardships. Chin We is adamant that this shouldn’t just be something for the ‘Black History’ month of October, and she tells me that “joy and celebration should be centred all year round.” Joy is also central to Mario’s work. “I’m building an archive so that years from now we have something to look back on in terms of how societies were changing and continue to change in London and beyond.“
“What brings me joy is being told that when people look at my work, they feel a sort of connection to the image, whether that’s because of the context or the composition. If I can impact just one person with the images I document, then I’m happy.”