Photography: Ejatu Shaw

Words: Darcie Imbert

Artist Ejatu Shaw is using photography to explore the elements that define her existence and construct her identity. Shaw’s background is a rich cultural tapestry, she is both Muslim and Fulani, West African and British – all of which exist alongside each other. Her series of work entitled ‘Poly-’explores the struggle of maintaining a connection with each tenet of your identity and resisting dilution of your roots when faced with physical and psychological distance. This soul-stirring body of work captures Shaw’s internal struggle to meet both the religious and cultural requirements of her tribe whilst being so deeply rooted by British values. Inspired by the portraits created by Ronan Mckenzie and Nadine Ijewere, Poly- is an enchanting portrayal of self exploration, addressing themes of identity, censorship, sexuality and taboo.

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Tell me a little about your creative journey, have you always favored photography as your primary medium?

Not at all! I’ve been drawing since the age of 7. I’d often draw portraits of my favourite celebrities using whatever drawing utensils I could find laying around the house. I later went on to study GCSE Art and A Level Art where I found great success, and it was at this point that I was finally equipped and able to build mixed media sculptural pieces, develop my painting skills and create ceramic work. Photography is definitely something I stumbled upon accidentally. I’d take images on my iphone 4, filter the life out of them and upload them to instagram. I found that people quite enjoyed my work and eventually went on to get a Sony Alpha camera, organising shoots with social media models and getting my practice in that way.  However, I did not consider it to be a career choice till my first year of university whilst working towards a degree in architecture.

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How did you start making art?

Studying Art at GCSE and A Level helped me to hone in on my artistic skills. I had an amazing teacher for both, Ms Charlton (shout out to you) who noticed I was quite a reserved young lady and encouraged me to express myself through my work. She pushed me to develop and redevelop my ideas, do thorough research on some of the Greats and constantly push the boundaries with my work. As shy as I was, I found that my work gave me a voice, and during school art exhibitions, I was able to discuss my ideas and the themes behind my work to my peers with confidence.

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What prompted you to pursue the ‘Poly-‘ project which was exhibited at the Space exhibition?

I was asked by Derrick Kakembo ( Curator of Space Exhibtion ) to put together a series of photographs that illustrated my identity as a Black British Muslim Woman. Whilst initially brainstorming for it, I came to terms with just how low my faith is right now, and found that this disconnection with Islam that I am currently experiencing was directly affecting my connection to my Fulani identity also. I really wanted to show this struggle with identity in Poly-.

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Can you tell me more about the significance of the ‘Poly-‘ project? How does the series fit with the rest of your work?

Made up of many different identities (British, Fulani, Muslim, West African), I find that I often struggle to have a firm understanding of myself and my place in all the communities I belong to. ‘Poly-’ explores the conflict I have with my identity whenever I try to connect with my Fulani roots outside of the confinements of Islam (a religion that 99% of Fulani people follow), and my struggle and failure to meet both the religious and cultural requirements of my tribe due to my British identity and values.

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My photographs are inspired by words with the prefixpoly-for example the image where the subject has a plastic sheet covering her head, titledPolypnea(which means rapid breathing/panting) shows the suffocation I often feel when I cannot fulfill the expectations of my community – e.g. the panic attack I had at my peers wedding because I came face to face with the fact that I was expected to marry into my culture and religion.

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Polyglot(image of subject with two jugs to his ears) shows the expectation that as a Fulani and Muslim I am expected to know how to speak Fulah and understand Arabic but my inability to speak Fulah creates a language barrier between myself and members of my community. My inability to translate the Quran lessens my connection with it. It is a foreign language to me, as is the religion itself. Throughout the project, my mother and grandmother serve as reminders that the Fulani identity is the only identity I’ll ever have both culturally and Islamically and I should never steer away from it.

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The series fits in with the rest of my work as I have used those around me as my muses to explore my own insecurities and anxieties externally in a bid to hopefully resolve them.

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Who and what are your most prominent artistic influences?

Some of my favorites in London include Ronan Mckenzie and Nadine Ijewere in terms of the way they depict underrepresented ethnicities of London in their portraits. This is something that I try to keep present in my own work, mainly working with people of colour. In terms of my choices of subject matter, I am greatly influenced by Senegalese film. Two of my favourite film makers are Djibril Diop Mambéty and Ousmane Sembène. Poly- is my response to Sembène’s Ceddo, which examines how a West African community with existing religious and cultural practices deals with a rise in Islamic culture. I’ve been questioning my identity for a while and so when I watched this film it left me wondering,  when did this initial contact with Islam happen in my culture, and what was it like to be a Fulani woman prior to the introduction of Islam. Was this initial contact a friendly introduction or was it forced upon my people at the time. Either way it is fully integrated in my culture, so much so that when I’m struggling with my faith, I also struggle with the role I play in my Fulani community here in London. Themes I constantly explore in my work include mental health and identity. In ‘Poly-‘, I touch on these along with themes of censorship, sexuality and taboo.

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What is it like being an artist in London?

It is a whole lot of fun! There are so many opportunities available for artists to showcase their work and loads of incredibly talented artists around that are great mentors to those of us that are still new to this.  There isn’t a feeling of needing to create a certain type of work to fulfill one’s role as a ‘professional artist’ as people here are always looking for something fresh to get behind.

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Do you have a lucid vision of some of the other projects you would like to work on?

I think I’ll definitely keep exploring my Fulani identity and my struggle with the Islamic faith as these are aspects of me that constantly vary. I want to continue to document my growth as an individual outside of these inherent identities also.

Follow Eajtu Shaw on Instagram @ejatushaw 

Words: Darcie Imbert