Written by Akwaeke Emezi

Vogue


Last year, documentary photographer Yagazie Emezi left Nigeria and moved to Liberia, exchanging the chaos of Lagos for the persistent grey of Monrovia. “It’s the wettest capital in the world,” she told me, and videos taken from her rooftop showed just that; a dull sky stretched over the ocean, rain as a constant soundtrack, water spitting down on water. It was unsurprising then that her first visit to West Point, a township ten minutes away from her house by tricycle taxi, would be accompanied by a light drizzle. West Point is also the largest slum in Monrovia, susceptible to significant coastal erosion. During the visit, Yagazie was shown around by a West Point resident. They walked through a part of the township that the ocean had reclaimed—where houses had been lost, eaten up by the water.


“I saw this woman who was sitting down in a half knocked down shack,” Yagazie recalled. “She was wearing a pink spaghetti tube top with blue braids, and had all these colors. Green lipstick, red eyeshadow. I wanted to photograph her but I couldn’t because it wasn’t my space; I didn’t know people there.” Her description was striking; easy to imagine. The woman sitting behind a veil of slight water, the rain pattering down, her body adorned in powder and oil-based pigment, stitched fabric and synthetic extensions. “That visual was what drew me into West Point,” Yagazie added.


She spent the next several months working with women and girls in Liberia, and from these interactions, it became clear that the standards of beauty these women were using were not ones she was familiar with. “They see a gold dress and think, that is a gold dress and it’s going to be on my body,” Yagazie explained. “We see a gold dress and we think, how will it look on my body? It’s the same thing with makeup. You’re not putting on pink because it matches, but because you like it, so you’re going to put it on you.”


It’s a simple but radical concept—to wear what you like simply because you like it, without considering if other people will find it aesthetically appealing. There’s an inversion of a gaze there—a replacement of the outside gaze with an interior one—and this inversion demonstrates a rejection of the globally enforced beauty standard that the outside gaze is based in. We often evaluate beauty against this standard by measuring how far one conforms to or deviates from it—from thinness to waist-to-hip ratios to how light your skin is, how straight your hair is, if what you’re wearing is considered ‘flattering’ to your body type, et cetera.


“It’s not quite the absence of a Western beauty standard,” Yagazie reminded me. “It’s the fact that there’s even another standard at all, one that’s well-established. In the West, this would be represented by the body positive movement, but in Liberia, it’s not a movement. It’s already there, it’s already included.”


In engaging with the women of West Point, Yagazie explained that she wanted to make work that would expand on the idea of women and what makes a beautiful woman, challenging what the globally enforced standard narrowly defines beauty as. The concept resonated strongly with the women, who were excited at the prospect of showing their beauty, and these resulting images are a record of their reclamation, a statement that your body belongs to you first, that adornment can be for your pleasure and not for others to consume, a bold declaration of self. It’s a powerful way of being in the world. 

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