On a day to day basis, how often are we asked to describe ourselves and how frequently do we think about the definitions of our identities? In the current fast-paced climate of our postmodern world, the nature of identity is growing more complex and yet more emphasis is placed on conceptualising who we want to be rather than reflecting on who we already are. To do so requires a deep analysis into the factors that influence our lives and the environments that shape us, needing the time and mental energy that few of us can regularly afford. For 21 year old Londoner, Ejatu Shaw, being commissioned to use photography as a means to explore her identity - in particular, her black, British and Muslim identity - at the end of last year, was the catalyst needed for her emancipation from just those labels. “I decided that I didn’t really understand my identity. So I used that opportunity to further express who I actually am and what it means to me,” she explains over drinks one evening. “It wasn’t really a process of making art. It was more a process of research and I found that I really don’t fit with any of my different labels.”
DEFINING A PERSONAL NARRATIVE
The often difficult and confusing process of trying to unpick the details of a personal narrative - a rite of passage for every young person - has been the source of much inner turmoil for Ejatu, where she has often struggled to align her own values and socio-cultural settings with the prescribed labels placed upon her from birth: ‘black, Fulani, Muslim’. Born from Sierra Leonean, immigrant parents, Ejatu faced the challenges - not uncommon to second generation diaspora Muslims - of balancing life in a non-Muslim society with the traditional customs of her heritage. "I found that I didn’t really identify with my culture at first. I just saw myself as a British kid,” she explains. However, by 11 years old, Ejatu felt a necessity to understand her role within her community, a result of the alienating feelings she experienced from her cultural expectations, as well as the economic marginalisation displacing her from fully connecting with her white, British, counterparts. Under the ambiguous advice of her Arabic teacher, she stopped engaging in some of her childhood hobbies, such as sketching and painting, for fear of such activities being classed as haram, and began wearing a hijab in an attempt to truly explore what it meant to belong to the umma.
And yet, a disconnection remained. “I went from being British, to blindly being a Muslim and being Fulani, to then questioning it and asking why should I label myself.” Regardless, with the struggle for financial stability at home, support for her creative passions was limited, and she found herself being pushed towards studying subjects that would ensure financial security in the future. “My parents wanted me to be the saviour of the household,” she notes. “They thought that I would be the key to success.” A degree in Architecture was the compromise. However, without the appropriate space for her creative expression, Ejatu’s mental health deteriorated and a hiatus from university was needed to reassess her choices for the future.
“I went from being British, to blindly being a Muslim and being Fulani, to then questioning it and asking why should I label myself.”
A CREATIVE BREAKTHROUGH
With more time on her hands, Ejatu submitted to the characteristic behaviours of the millennial girl: engaging heavily with social media platforms, thus using the smartphone as a gateway to reestablish previous creative passions. “My first camera was the iPhone 4,” she recalls, smiling. This breed of modern creative, founded off the back of social networking apps, are tapping into new resources for the formation of not only self-defined identities, but also career trajectories that they may not have had the confidence to pursue otherwise. For Ejatu, experimenting with photo-editing apps helped to rebuild her self-esteem in pursuing other forms of artistic expression. She began contacting potential subjects on Instagram, to collaborate with for personal projects, as well as taking documentary style pictures whilst travelling around Sierra Leone. As such, a love of photography blossomed and her presence on social media began to gain recognition from independent brands and media outlets alike. “I was always told, you had to work for someone but now I’m working for myself based on my Instagram profile,” she notes. “I haven’t had a job since I left university. I haven’t needed it because I’m making my own money!”
Soon, her online persona caught the eye of Reform the Funk, a UK based arts and culture platform, who challenged Ejatu to create something that would encompass the many facets of her identity. “I found Ejatu’s fusion of cultures very beautiful,” says Derrick Kakembo, editor at Reform the Funk. “I felt that she had a unique story to tell and wanted her to share it through photography and mixed media, as part of our Space exhibition.” Her debut photography series was born. Poly - which translates to many - is an exploration of the several identities Ejatu holds and the anxieties surrounding her conflicting labels. With a lacking presence of black representation for British Muslims (black Muslims make up 10% of the Muslim population in the UK, according to data from the Muslim Council of Britain), Ejatu felt compelled to investigate the connections between her African heritage and Muslim religion, evaluating the differences of her Islamic experience to that of Arab or Asian Muslims. Drawn to understand the lifestyles of the Fulani people in Sierra Leone, she began questioning the impact of Islam on her tribe and its influence in shaping her own black, British identity. “I was watching this documentary about the Wodaabe tribe, the original Fulani people before any influence from Islam. They place a huge emphasis on women and the females are allowed to have multiple partners,” she observes. “So Poly is about trying to understand who I could have been if Islam didn’t influence my region.”
A running theme throughout Poly, Ejatu feels a responsibility to address the societal pressures placed on women from her culture to marry, and the methods used to maintain a woman’s ‘purity’, such as FGM (female genital mutilation), of which she sadly highlights as still being conducted in her community today. An image, featuring a subject covered with a white cloth, mirrors the pre-marital ceremony young girls like her might suffer through before their wedding night; a method of virginity testing. It is such examples, where cultural practices are enforced as religious obligations by the older members of that society, that disturb Ejatu - traditions which she refuses to entertain in her own future. “It’s the idea of shame I don’t agree with and the pressure to make sure your family isn’t embarrassed.”
The rigidity with which these customs are applied is problematic for Ejatu, as she has taken issue with her community’s static belief systems. “I love things to be very elastic. I love movement and reformation. It frightens me when individuals cannot be shaken at all.” Aptly named, Poly explores the relationship between fluidity and rigidity, playing on the words used to define plastic: a polymeric material. “It’s the idea that it cannot be easily destroyed because plastic is non biodegradable,” she says. “In the same way, I feel that the labels I have had attached to me since birth cannot be easily destroyed without some sort of toxicity coming from them.”
Read the full interview in POSTSCRIPT Issue 1.