Reclaiming Togolese Identity – PhMuseum

Through their series Togo Yeye, the duo engages in community building and brings to the forefront Togolese the nation’s strong sense of art, creativity and identity.

Malaika Nabillah & Delali Ayivi took it to the street. Equipped with cameras, colorful backdrops, occasional fashion garments, and a keen eye for style, they hit the streets of Lomé, scouting for creatives and talents fresh out of fashion school and stylish young men from the streetwear scene.  

Portraying a slice of Lomé’s artistic community, they wanted to convey its character and uniqueness through the aesthetic expression of young Togolese artists and creatives. In so doing, they also amplified their own country’s creative scene, helping to structure and build it up. This fruitful collaboration—between photographer Ayivi and artist/producer Nabillah—became Togo Yeye, recipient of PhMuseum’s 1st Prize New Generation 2022.

It all started during fashion week, an event that has grown in Togo and other African countries over the past 10 years, bringing a lively and positive competition among young designers. Because of the colonial history of the country, the influence of Western aesthetics still permeates many aspects of African culture. “There’s still a huge inspiration coming from the Western world, often a desire to copy what’s happening in the West,” they say, which has conditioned artists to look outwards rather than inwards to their own culture. However, it has also encouraged a desire to experiement and discover new talents: “We try to find those who have a unique sense of identity, like-minded people who have the same spirit, who push boundaries.” And Nabillah and Ayivi have become a catalytic force of this breakthrough and growth.

But to be creating just for the sake of creating is still something rare in Togo, they say, and not everybody understood their drive at first. Some speculated about their work being linked to economic gains. They also faced another challenge: making people understand the connection between photography and social change—the impact that art can have on society by shaking things up. “It can bring social change in the sense that we need diversified storytelling coming from the continent. We need artists, we need platforms [for] our artists and the different fields of artistry.”

But along with gaining visibility, community building was equally important, bringing together all actors involved, an approach still relatively new to Togo’s art system. “Behind one image there’s a model, there’s a modeling agent, there’s a producer, there’s a makeup artist, there’s a hairstylist, there’s a designer, a photo system,” they say. That’s how they built a community, promoted knowledge exchange, and brought different creative fields to work together. “We’re trying to help build our industry from the ground up. There’s no limits to imagination.”

Ayivi and Nabillah work not just with designers but also with young men from the prominent Togolese streetwear scene—deeply inspired by American streetwear—who style themselves with outlandish outfits. “We’re trying to prove that there’s an art form in what lots of people do—and don’t necessarily see as art.” Additionally, they create space for Togo’s more traditional style practices. In one photo, four girls are portrayed as they interact naturally. They wear traditional fabric produced locally with antique dying techniques. They show traditional hairstyle, an ancient Togolese tradition at risk of being forgotten.

Ultimately, holding together different threads, the collaborative duo hopes to build and strengthen a community that will become self-sustainable, an experimental lab for art and young talents not dependent on or conditioned by the outside world but that thrives on its own. “This experience has changed us, so we expect that it’ll also help our community to grow, like it has made us grow.”

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All photos © Delali Ayivi and Malaika Nabillah, from the series Togo Yeye

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Delali Ayivi and Malaika Nabillah are a creative duo based in Lomé and New York. Ayivi is a Togolese and German photographer whose work focuses on people and fashion. Nabillah is an entrepreneur based in Lomé whose work focuses on the creation and local production of Togolese Batik fabrics. Find their project, Togo Yeye, here.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer and editor focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.