Seeking Self: Ejatu Shaw’s Photographic Work Explores the Intricacies of Heritage and Community in a Modern World

Who are we?

How do we fit in?

And how do we relate to those around us are questions of self that do not always pose linear or even easy to come to answers. The complexities of life and individual experience within a rich ancestral tapestry often result in feeling ungrounded or at times having to reduce oneself to an amalgamation of pointers to make one’s heritage more palatable to those on the outside. It is within this very journey, this search of self, this exploration of personal narrative that we look to the photographic work of London based multidisciplinary artist Ejatu Shaw.

Ejatu a second-generation Black, Fulani, Muslim woman born to Sierra Leonean immigrant parents found herself in a difficult space to navigate with regards to identity from the very start, as beautifully illustrated in an article by Elvira Vedelago covering the artist for POSTSCRIPT. Here, Ejatu elaborates on her feelings of cultural alienation and the constant battle between a search for identity within her community while simultaneously feeling as though she never fully connected due to her British upbringing. As she puts it in the interview, ”I went from being British, to blindly being a Muslim and being Fulani, to then questioning it and asking why should I label myself.

It was within this very mindset of constant self-assessment and exploration that her debut photographic exhibition Poly- is situated. “Poly-’ explores the conflict Ejatu has with her identity whenever she attempts to connect with her Fulani roots outside of the confinements of Islam (a religion that 99% of Fulani people follow), and her struggle and failure to meet both the religious and cultural requirements of her tribe due to her British identity and values”. The personal importance of the project is undeniable. In truth, one could say that it is a conscious attempt to portray the cultural isolation Ejatu has felt for most of her life, that search for self she keeps returning to, that sense of belonging that we as individuals all search for tirelessly. The work surrounding Poly- isn’t fully complete, as Ejatu states that there are certain notions raised in Poly- that she would want to explore further, one of which is the prevalence of female genital mutilation within her community. 

Much of my interaction with Ejatu focussed on how over the last couple of years she has evolved not only in a personal capacity but also within her practice. As her journey of self continues; now within a Boris Brexit Britain, rife with conservative nationalistic rhetoric and an unprecedented anti-immigrant sentiment she explains that “I‘m not even shocked by some of the very blatant racism that is being spewed as a lot of these ideologies have been prevalent for such a long time. I remember so vividly how my parents were treated by both our neighbours and the local council back in the 90s.”

The unfortunate reality is that not only does Ejatu have to navigate an incredibly difficult personal search for identity, but her identity and heritage may be the very thing used against her when racist bigots stretch their mouths to unleash their narrow nationalistic points of view. Lest we forget, now Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s Islamophobic comments surrounding Muslim women wearing burqas. Ejatu does, however, feel like people of colour in Britain should continue their fight against this prejudice stating that “as artists, I think it’s important that we continue to photograph and tell the stories of Black and Brown Britons as our stories are just as important to the fabric of this country. We must continue to challenge predominantly white institutions that do not necessarily freely represent or acknowledge the black or brown gaze.”

Fortunately, on a far more positive point of departure, Ejatu also spoke about a trip to Senegal she undertook in 2018. Although it seems the search of self and her position within her culture and community is something that is seemingly unescapable, this trip and her experiences within Senegal seemed to have bought some sense of solace in terms of identity.

When I visited Senegal in 2018, waking up every morning to the Azhan, and seeing women who looked like me decorated in beautiful gowns headed to the Friday prayer – I felt at home, and after a very long time, finally found myself reunited with Islam. Although I feel quite distant from the Fulani community back in the U.K., it was so warming to come across fellow Fulani people in Senegal. One day, when I traced the large characteristic bump on my nose and laughed, a taxi driver I had just acquainted myself with; Mohamed Jalloh, knew exactly what I meant, as he went ahead and did the same. “peul?” I asked, to which he nodded enthusiastically and greeted with a sweet ‘jaraama’ [hello/how are you]. It felt so encouraging to find someone with the same lineage as me so many miles away. The pictures I took during that trip certainly reflect the warmth and resolve I was feeling.

The images from Senegal have this odd sense of familiarity, with warm tones and a washed look intentionally combined with unedited dust marks giving the photographs a sense of timelessness. They come across like beautifully taken portraits you may find after a number of years in a family photo album. As she herself says there was something very homely about this trip and the images of friends and strangers alike come across more like family members. There is a beautiful subtlety, an undeniable intimacy that accompanies each of these images.

As for now, Ejatu explains that she will continue to look at photography as some form of therapy helping her navigate through questions of identity, however, she does also feel like she has a lot more control over aspects and anxieties within her personal life that have been raised in previous projects. Moving forward Ejatu also explained that she’ll be looking outward for inspiration as well, “I do not want to solely rely on looking inwards when drawing inspiration for my work. I definitely want to work on having a much more photojournalistic approach to my practice, and perhaps indirectly heal from telling other individual’s stories.” With her innate ability to capture intimacy in such an organic and seemingly unintrusive fashion, a shift to a more photojournalistic style has me unbelievably excited for future projects Ejatu decides to explore.

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