Ngadi Smart is a Sierra Leonean Visual Artist based in Côte d’Ivoire. She works in the mediums of photography and illustration.
The themes in her illustrative work fluctuate between female and male power dynamics, to feminism, to female sexuality and are often also fashion and pop culture inspired. Her photography work has long been focused on how people self-identify and choose to present themselves in front of the lens.
As of late, her interest has been documenting Black sensuality from an African lens and point of view. Her aim is to show as many representations of African people, and the complexities of what it means to be African, as she can.
As an artist what are your main aims and motivations?
To create something I am proud of, change people’s perceptions, and to keep learning.
What are the key themes and issues you explore in your work? A lot of your work is centred on people and in particular women – is this something you see as being central to your work?
The themes in my illustrative work fluctuate between female and male power dynamics, to feminism, to sexuality, and are also fashion-inspired.
My photography tends to focus on people’s expression of identity, including self-identity through fashion, and as of late, black sensuality through an African lens and point of view; My aim is to show as many representations of what it means to be African.
How has your own identity influenced your practice?
I come from a family of strong, proud Sierra Leonean women. My Grandmother is one of my biggest inspirations, and always treated her sons as equals to her daughters, especially when it was really not the norm in past culture. She knew who she was, what she wanted to gain a better life for herself and her children, and no man or traditional African societal view was going to change that, and that has really always stuck with me. I think African culture has made major change 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 absolutely do think female and male characteristics are a lot more intertwined emotionally and physically than people think. So for me, the best way to challenge that is through visual imagery.
Having now had the experience of moving back to West Africa to live as an adult, I was not surprised to see that sexuality over here is also a lot more complex than some people would like to admit, and I think it is super important as a young African woman living in present Africa for me to portray that through my work, as I want to normalise this issue.
This is why you will see much of my work explores self-identity, feminism and sexuality, through an African lens.
Could you expand on your ongoing focus on the positive representation of Black cultures, and your more recent work on how African identities tie into Black sensuality?
The black body still remains highly underrepresented in mainstream media and it is something that needs to change. I always use African-looking characters in my illustrations because I think there’s already a lot of European-looking characters out there. I just want my there to be more representation of people of colour. In regards to my work combining African identity with sexuality, of course, there is more to African identity, but I chose this specific theme because it is what I am interested in, and I feel deserves more discussion in our society/culture. I think that as African creatives, it is important that we create from the heart. There needs to be some flexibility for us, to be able to create and to define for ourselves because so much has been defined for us.
You have recently been selected for the BJP’s Female in Focus award – what have your experiences been as a female photographer and how has the gender imbalance within photography impacted you and your work?
As a female photographer, it can be difficult to ignore the odd condescending comments, so I try to just create, keep creating, and involve feminist themes in my work because I know that this will always open up the discussion, in order to challenge the status quo.
I have shot in outdoor locations in West Africa, where random men standing by, watching, have actually interrupted my shoot to let me know what they think is better. Or I have had some male photographers trying to tell me how I should photograph.
I have yet to have a complete horror story, but I am fully aware of the roadblocks women photographers have against them in this male dominated industry. However, I can see things changing. There is a new wave of consciousness, and the dialogue is opening up on this issue.
I am grateful and proud to be part of the BJP’s launch campaign for their Female in Focus Award.
You have recently exhibited work for the ‘Do the Green Thing’ Exhibition – can you explain in your your motivations and aims behind your piece and the joint impact of patriarchy on women and girls and the environment.
Curated by Do The Green Thing’s “Man’ Made Disaster” exhibition featured the work of 30 women and non-binary artists: “Multiple studies have found that women outperform men in virtually every type of environmental behaviour. These artists will be exploring how the patriarchy is impacting the environment”.
My interpretation of this was an Illustration I created entitled “Phallic Nightmare”:
A central female is surrounded by yonic flowers wilting in the pollution of phallic smoke stacks in a piece that reflects on the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and girls.
An expression of age-old planetary destruction, I wanted to present an analogy for how the patriarchy is not only a direct threat to the environment, but women’s sexuality too.
Other key themes in your work are sexuality, masculinity and gender fluidity. In terms of your recent photography projects which focus specifically on these, what is the message you are hoping to get across?
I would say specifically the “Amorphophallus Aphyllus” and “Longing and Belonging” series focus on these themes.
“Amorphophallus Aphyllus” is inspired by an African phallic hermaphrodite flower of the same name. The flower has an ambiguous form, a blending of male and female features. The photographs for the series embody this ambiguity, by blending the bodies of male and female figures. It is a series on African masculinity and femininity, their various interchangeable facets and the intricate societal “masks” and layers we hold on to.
I am basically trying to show how men and women are more similar than we think, but through the use of the body. By involving female body parts with male body parts, and creating this sort of double illusion.”
“Longing and Belonging” had the same message also, but those photos were inspired from the close ties that create a bond, gender similarities, and the human desire in sharing intimacy. I wanted to show the vulnerability in masculinity and femininity, and how similar our emotions are, in contrast to society’s preconceived notions of what a woman and a man’s emotions are.
There seems to be a new wave of creatives on the continent and in the diaspora who are redefining representations of African identity. Is this something you have noticed, and what excites you about this movement?
What excites me the most is that we now have all the tools as African creatives to tell our own story, our own way and reach a large audience. We are the ones experiencing the various aspects of what it means to be African in the present age. It is great that we get to define for ourselves what African art is and what African art represents in modern times. Simply through our visual storytelling, whatever theme or medium we choose, as well as the quality of our work, we can challenge perceptions of the African continent, and showcase a genuine representation of modern African Visual Art.