New York to Lagos: A Journey of Self-Reflection
The beauty and strength of being a second-generation child is endless. Oluwakemi Oritsejafor is a direct representation of this, conceptually and visually. As a photographer based in New York City and Lagos, Oluwakemi, draws on the creativity and chaos of both of these places, using her difference as an advantage and respecting her father’s strong ties to Lagos as a source of self-reflection and growth.
In Kemi’s ethereal photography project, she dives into the interplay of Yoruba culture, self-discovery and creativity. In this photographic journey lies a personal journey, in which Kemi has had to navigate the creative scenes of both NYC and Lagos. We sit down to talk to Kemi about the project and the journey she took to get here today.
How was this project born and what inspired it?
I worked closely on it with creative director, Cheche Uduma, who is based full time in Lagos. Cheche really has such a strong vision, work ethic, and eagerness that is really hard to find when collaborating, someone who can keep up with my pace. Working together has turned into a friendship and ongoing creative partnership, and plain and simple reminded me why I love working with other Nigerians. We as a people just have a certain energy and attitude towards being unabashed when taking on what’s in front of us. Therefore, this project just came together naturally and to life around New Years 2019.
New Years is my favourite time of year, as I love the sense of renewal and rebirth that comes with the reset of the year, and of course this past season was special for it being the start of a new era. I think of rebirth not in the sense of completely reinventing yourself, but in looking inwards, staying true to yourself but also encouraging room for improvement. Those close to me might even say I am introspective to a fault. This really ties into my strong sense of spirituality that is intrinsic to my Yoruba background and my overall upbringing. I am lucky to be getting older and it’s amazing to feel my intuition begin to radiate. As for the photography itself, I’d say, it’s a visual representation of my connection to Lagos, the importance of self-reflection and an output of my creativity. To me it’s a showing of thanks and the honour to be formed into who I am today from a lifetime of journey’s to my father’s home country and the city that raised him, Lagos.
What are your ties to Lagos?
I first went to Lagos as my father’s child, as a second-generation kid given my father is Nigerian, my mother Liberian, and I being born and raised predominantly in America. Even though I went during summer as kid and throughout my adult life, it was always seen to me as my father’s terrain. As I was my father and Lagos’ guest, looking at his city through his eyes, which is a privilege and a gift within itself. My more recent trips to Lagos over the last few years have allowed me a new gift, being able to see it in a different light; as somewhere I can develop my own personal memories out of and mark my own place out as a creative and as a foreign-born Nigerian. This ties in with the sense of death and rebirth; I’ve begun to move away from this identity as purely a foreigner and embrace my role as a newfound insider with much to still learn and exchange from my peers in Lagos’ creative scene.
Why was Tarkwa Bay your choice of setting?
This was my father’s influence, as he spent a lot of his youth here on Tarkwa Bay and the beaches of Lagos. It was a place that physically and emotionally saw him grow up. It ties in well with the themes I wanted to explore and I saw a beauty in the circular nature of it - him coming here as a young adult growing into himself and me coming here to Lagos over my lifetime to better understand who I am and helping my self growth into the individual I am today.
How has your heritage influenced your creativity?
I’d say my heritage is intrinsic to my work. I fully believe I would have nothing to guide me in my work, in my life, if it wasn’t for the dedication my parents had for my understanding of my family's story and journey to now. Both my father and mother’s careful nurturing provided me as a young black girl of West African descent in the American South as something to really ground me. My father travelling with his children to Lagos as often as he could was his way of connecting with me. He instilled into us more than just heritage, but a sense of pride and confidence as to who I am and who I will become. That is truly written in what has come of our family over generations. Over the years, all the trips became a journey of further understanding as to how my world came to be, what my actions and impact represent therefore. That in itself is a big part of Nigerian identity, being someone who carries yourself well in the world as a reflection of those who raised you.
My time spent in Lagos exposed me to levels of unwavering beauty and a perspective I find absolutely invaluable. The city has always been a source of inspiration and will continue to be. A big part of this is its culture and heritage as the heart of Yorubaland. Being Yoruba greatly influenced me as a person overall from the dress, the music, the language, and especially the attitude and beauty of Yoruba women haha. We are very spiritual people who value respect and honour, especially for your elders. As an American, Nigerian, and Liberian, I have come across challenges my entire life navigating what can feel as if 3 opposing cultures and viewpoints. But it’s always more than rewarding, but defines who I have become as a person, to find a balance of these cultures. My work sits at the intersections of my identity, my life, and my family's experience over generations, that simply fuels me more than anything.
To build on this, how did you navigate this journey?
I feel like all second-generation kids go through this, to varying degrees. It can be very hard to find a balance that fits for you, and often it’ll be ever-changing with your age and environment. I think the bottom line for me - coming out of this transformative project, and just through growing up - is that each experience is different and being kind to yourself and honest with your family about where you stand, is essential in your self-growth. I believe that continuing to learn how to compromise without breaking your own personal boundaries and perspective while moving with patience and compassion, especially for yourself, has brought me to this level of understanding and clarity.
What are the similarities and differences you see between the two creative scenes?
To be honest, NYC (especially Brooklyn) and Lagos draw a lot of similarities: they both have this grit and undying drive that is both infectious and relentless, both people move with urgency and are hungry for life. I would say that the Lagos scene is more forthcoming and people are more open to honest feedback, which links to their strong sense of self-growth. Because the Lagos scene is small in comparison to that of NYC, people have a stronger sense of working together in a way that is new to me but is both rewarding and challenging. Lagosians are also some of the most resourceful people you’ll ever meet! Generally speaking, I ask myself every time I reach out to someone or connect with someone to collaborate, am I showing up as my best self? What can I learn from them? What can I provide in return? In Lagos this question definitely means so much more to me as I always come prepared to give as much as I take in knowledge and experience in a way that feels different than in NYC.
Also, my experience is that there are different obstacles in the way for me, as a young Black image maker and artist in NYC, than in Lagos. In NYC there is still great room for improvement in the creative scene in terms of opportunities for us as Queer POC and women in general in NYC, especially as an image maker from my personal experience. In Lagos I am most excited about the community queer people and women who are creating visuals and compelling stories, and am dedicated to working and collaborating with them, giving our community further amplification to individual voices and experiences. This is not to discredit either scene, but simply to say that there can always be more room for everyone. There is a larger conversation here on the freedoms and access communities have within the arts and our greater society that is being had, I will always contribute to it in the most productive means.
What do you hope for yourself as a creative and for the creative scenes in both your homes?
I want to tell stories that are reflective and put my energy into personal experiences that can inspire and help others. These places are both my homes - places I can relax, unwind and look inwards - and so will always inform my journey as a creative human. My hope is to contribute to growing and maintaining a space that is both open and nurturing regardless of the scene I am a part of. But, also to not be afraid of showing up as my true self while emulating the authenticity and self assurance of the creative leaders who have come before me.
There is always a fear across both scenes that if I say the wrong thing and show up in a way that is not whatever the given status quo of a world that has some obvious improvements then I’ll be flat out done, silenced. I want to push against that always in my work and how I work with people, because my work is how I have conquered my personal fears and hesitations that keep me from truly being and showing up as my whole self. Being a photographer and overall creative has truly been my liberation. Through collaborating with various makers and artists across scenes with this mindset, it’s beautiful how we come together, create an honest community and chosen family through our storytelling.