By Prisca Sam-Duru

In Africa, the subject of albinism has long been treated as something evil rather than a genetic defect. And as a result, people living with albinism (PWA) are stigmatized.

One of Ayeni-Babaeko’s works

According to a health journal, “a defect in one of several genes that produce or distribute melanin causes albinism. The defect may result in the absence of melanin production, or a reduced amount of melanin production.”  The United Nations captures the condition of PWA thus, “people with albinism face multiple forms of discrimination worldwide. Albinism is still profoundly misunderstood, socially and medically. The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition, which foster their marginalization and social exclusion.”

In a bid to help change the existing narrative on albinism, social activist photographer, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko’s ‘White Ebony’, an exhibition featuring twenty-one thought-provoking photographs opened to the public on May 25, 2019 at Temple Muse, Lagos.

Curated by SMO Contemporary Art, Ayeni-Babaeko’s body of work captures the complexity of life that Persons with Albinism (PWAs) face daily. ‘White Ebony’ is being showcased by Temple Muse for the next six weeks to support the recognition and protection of people with albinism in commemoration of the International Albinism Awareness Day, which comes up on June 13 every year. The exhibition ends on July 19, and a portion of the income from sales will go towards supporting people with albinism.

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‘White Ebony’ challenges preconceived notions on albinism with powerful images which reflect a renaissance beauty through sensitive lighting, composition, and layered stylistic interpretations.  ‘White Ebony’ takes the viewer on an emotional journey that is filled with nuance as well as controversial in its stark positioning and challenging suggestions. Each work reflects both internal struggles while working through layers of identity and self-actualization, and points to the urgent need to stop the stigmatization of persons with albinism.

Ayeni-Babeko worked closely with members of the Albino Foundation in Lagos, and after in-depth interviews and insightful group discussions, began interpreting their reality through photographs which explore both the alienation and struggles experienced by persons with albinism, as well as celebrates their lives and achievements.

Interestingly, PWAs are proud of who they are. This is evident in some of the photographs on display. Titles such as ‘Embracing It’, ‘White Ebony’, ‘Secret Wishes’, etc., attest to that fact. Funny enough, in ‘Secret Wishes’, the PWAs are thinking about the irony of life in that people with normal skin colour are ‘bleeching’ while they wish they were born with normal African skin colour.

The  exhibition curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, who has worked on three previous shows with the photographer, while commending her for the campaign said, “as in her previous exhibitions, which have tackled issues such as the challenges survivors of breast cancer face, or photographing dancers performing within slums to highlight the needs of populations living in shantytowns,  Ayeni-Babaeko’s amazing artistry is heightened by her commitment to social change and supporting marginalized communities.

“It’s easy to create a striking image of a person with albinism because of how unique they are. But these models were not just put in front of my camera for me to photograph. I was able to really connect with them through long conversations about their daily struggles, sharing with me what their life is like and all this knowledge translated into this new body of work,” the artist explained, adding: “my work is not there to make you feel good; its purpose is to trigger you to think and expand your knowledge.”

Commenting on the exhibition, Founder and President of the Albino Foundation, Jake Epelle, said “working with a sensitive photographer like Yetunde has been a great creative approach to raising awareness about the challenges people with albinism face every day.

Much more needs to be done to advocate for the recognition and respect of the rights and socio-economic inclusion of people living with albinism. The Foundation works with governments and development institutions to improve the health and social wellbeing of PWAs in Nigeria.”

Andrew Skipper, Board Member of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C., Partner & Head of Africa Practice at the international law firm, Hogan Lovells which sponsored the exhibition explained that “Hogan Lovells is committed to supporting important social causes. We believe that art is a beautiful way of raising awareness and celebrating diversity and inclusion. An exhibition like ‘White Ebony’ by Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko is testament to the way art helps to strengthen society.

“Yetunde’s work is a powerful example of art for social change and we are delighted to showcase her work,” said Avinash Wadhwani, CEO of Temple Muse, the design luxury concept store.

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