(Updated) The Beauty of Albinism in Ayeni-Babaeko’s White Ebony

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yetunde baba-eko

By Yinka Olatunbosun

An emotionally-charged visual journey through some beautiful pieces of photography inspired by baroque painting took place recently at the Temple Muse, Victoria Island, Lagos where a handful of journalists gathered to preview 20 photographs executed by the social activist photographer, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko. Called “White Ebony”, the solo exhibition is an outcome of a rare encounter that the photographer had with the Albino Foundation as the organisation gears up for the 2019 commemoration of the International Albinism Awareness Day.

She began going to their meetings which were insightful as she was not deeply informed about the lives of persons living with albinism. One of the first things she learnt during the bi-monthly meetings was that it is derogatory to call anyone “albino”. There are many attributes, skills and talents in such individuals so by naming them “albino”, it blurs out other qualities that make them whole.

All over the world, persons living with albinism have endured the pain of discrimination because of their skin colour; some have lived in communities that hold superstitious beliefs about their condition. The complexity of albinism can indeed be overwhelming. That is why the Albino Foundation was founded by Jake Epelle, According to the United Nations, “Albinism is still profoundly misunderstood, socially and medically.”

The reality of the world of albinism pierced through the camera lens in Ayeni-Babaeko’s hands as she took several shots at each one, some in groups, mothers and children, amongst others. Finally, an astonishing collection is made. For the first glance, anyone will wish to have the skin tone. Ayeni-Babaeko moderated light, played with forms, and restored her insight into art history and technique to import an African material into an European context of painting rendered into photography. She blends sex appeal and self-confidence exuded by the models carefully on the canvas which had been carefully framed like neo-classical paintings.

Brilliantly, her compositions relived the Elizabethan era. Interestingly, Ayeni-Babaeko, born of Nigerian and German parentage, had been an advocate of social change through her work. Her advocacy role in the photography can be traced to her exhibition hosted by the German cultural centre in Lagos, Goethe Institut where she unveiled some very graphic photography of women living with breast cancer to create awareness about the ailment and the underlying hope for survivors.

The curator for the exhibition, Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago spoke largely on some of the discoveries made by the Ayeni-Babaeko during the photography project; her commitment to social change and her unwavering support for marginalised communities. Referencing her phenomenal photography, “Eko Moves” based on dancers performing in Lagos slums.

Ayeni-Babaeko, on her part, revealed that the close engagement with the community had unearthed a lot about their unique personalities, their hyper-sensitivity to camera flashes and darkness.

“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 them. I was able to really connect with them through long conversations about their daily struggles, sharing with me their life is like and all this knowledge translated into this new body of work,” she said. In his submission, Andrew Skipper, a board member of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC and partner at an international law firm, Hogan Lovells, which sponsored the exhibition.

For Avinash Wadhwani, CEO of Temple Muse, described the works as “a powerful example of art for social change” while expressing his delight at the show which will run till July 19. Part of the proceeds from the White Ebony exhibition will go into supporting people with albinism.

It is estimated that about four million Nigerians are living with albinism.