David Ụzọchukwu: Meet the photographer creating Black fantasy creatures

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Written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

Given the mermaids, it’s hard to imagine the fish-tailed princess that Hans Christian Andersen imagined in a classic fairy tale. “Her skin is clear and delicate like rose petals, and her eyes are blue like the deepest sea.”
Almost two centuries later, the global representation of merchandise has just begun to move beyond the image originally recalled in The Little Mermaid. This year, Disney will release a live-action reconsideration of the story with Ariel’s leading black actress, Halle Bailey.
However, mermaids have always been an important part of African folklore. From South Africa’s “Water Made” in Koisan’s rock art (some of which are believed to date back 28,000 years), the water spirit “Mamiwata” recognized in oral traditions throughout the continent. African diaspora in the Americas, Ariel long before black fish.

To change the view of the sea, Austrian Nigerian visual artist and photographer DavidỤzọchukwu creates surreal fantasy portraits celebrating a black and brown body.

The self-taught 23-year-old work deals with longing and attribution, black and queer identities, and magic.

His commercial photographs include collaborations with musicians FKA Twigs and Farrell, fashion designers Iris Van Herpen, and WWF, commissioned by Dior and Hermes, but it’s his myths and fantasies that stir the imagination. It is an image of.

Ụzọchukwu uses his images to create a space where black and brown people can see themselves in magic and mythology. Photo: “Buoyancy”, 2019. credit: David Uzochukwu, gallery number 8

“Water and blackness”

In November 2021, Ụzọchukwu performed at the Photo Vogue Festival in Milan. At the festival, we exhibited images from a continuous series called “Mare Monstrum,” which we started editing in 2016.

This series is Ụzọchukwu’s first deliberate work, moving away from a single image and inspired by the stories of fantasy creatures of the African Continent and the Diaspora, as well as European fairy-tale and mythological traditions.

“In this mythical approach, I find so many truths, and sometimes it’s such a satisfying view of the political questions that relate to me,” said Ụzọchukwu. “I’m slowly thinking about how to use my art as a weapon for a cause.”

Ụzọchukwu took some of the images in the series on location in a coastal town in Senegal. From there people travel to the Canary Islands and Europe. In many cases, it will never be seen again.

Ụzọchukwu series, "Marlemon Strum," It deals with the experience of Africans arriving in Europe in both modern and historical contexts. Photo: "Styx"2021.

Ụzọchukwu’s series “Mare Monstrum” deals with the experience of Africans arriving in Europe in both contemporary and historical contexts. Photo: “Styx”, 2021. credit: David Uzochukwu, gallery number 8

“This series deals with the modern context of refugees. What I found interesting was these water metaphors used in the press.” Refugee Waves. ” There was this idea of ​​”flooding” with some sort of natural force, “he explained. As a European citizen, he realized that “this human catastrophe is part of our responsibility and that sense of responsibility has prompted me to pursue these themes.”

Through his work, he breaks down some of the violence he experienced when refugees from the African continent made dangerous crossroads to find shelters on the European coast and portrayed similarities to the Atlantic slave trade. I want

“Historically, there is an interesting connection between the water and the blackness of the Middle Passage. [the forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to become slaves in the Americas]”It’s really interesting to realize that you’re part of the tradition,” he added.

From self-portraits to surreal fantasies

Ụzọchukwu found a passion for image production in Luxembourg as a young teenager. He initially took up crafts as his hobby to impress his interest in love.

As he grew up, photography became a means of understanding and processing his own identity. “At first, he was able to create this space where he felt he was being seen, and it was important to create this stage to carry out various aspects of himself,” said Ụzọchukwu. ..

Although he has moved away from self-portraits in the traditional sense, he claims that all parts of his work can be considered self-portraits.

“Over time, I became obsessed with post-production, which allowed me to start building the world around me, getting more involved in the characters and creating fantastic scenes and settings,” the artist said. Told.

In a process that takes “weeks, months, and even years,” Ụzọchukwu first sketches his concepts and images, then turns to his camera-experiment and development when he shoots. make it possible. “It’s the first half of the process and we get that visual material,” he explained. “The second part is to integrate all of this in the digital domain, often with individual subjects and backgrounds, and sometimes dozens of images. It’s like a digital collage. , Build by overlaying images. “

The work of Ụzọchukwu involves a complex post-production process, which often results in fascinating images. Photo: "Stake out"2019.

The work of Ụzọchukwu involves a complex post-production process, which often results in fascinating images. Photo: “Stake Out”, 2019. credit: David Uzochukwu, gallery number 8

Through the distorted poses and layers of their delicate images, the Ụzọchukwu figure becomes a strange sculptural shape in a barren dream landscape, somewhere between the surreal and the surreal. He enjoys the ambiguity of his work a lot-his image is at the same time ethereal, horrifying, persuasive and embarrassing.

“It’s like licking honey from a thorn, taking this bittersweet ambivalent approach to art, especially when it comes to the black body,” said Ụzọchukwu. “Having this ambivalence is very satisfying to me, and I have the choice of whether there is a black horror and an absolute monster, or a black joy and no room for anguish. It is important not to engage in one discourse. “

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The work of Ụzọchukwu is currently on display at the tour group exhibition “Fire” sponsored by the international photography award group Prix Pictet. The exhibition ended in January at the V & A in London and was held earlier this month at Luma Westbau in Zurich, Switzerland. ..

The multimedia artist also released his first short film “GÖTTER DÄMMERUNG” last year and is now completing his first film installation called “Civil Dusk”. The multi-channel installation is the story of an Igbo man building a house in a family village in Nigeria.

“It was a tradition that my father followed and it became the center of our family,” he said. “This film is a hybrid of documentary and fiction, giving us a better understanding of this truly concrete connection to our home soil.”

Home is the central theme of many of the images of Ụzọchukwu. As an African heritage person living in Europe, it is important for him to find out that he belongs to art, and therefore it is important for him as an artist to create a space of expression.

“It shouldn’t be a luxury to be able to see yourself in fantasy and imagine yourself in a new context,” he said. “There is a deep need for this human dream. It’s very comfortable to have something concrete that has visuals and images and that you can see yourself reflected.”

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