A new project by an up-and-coming photographer examines the dichotomy of the relationship African women living in America have between their country of origin and their country of choice.
Mostly immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, this growing population of women in America are a quiet one, often below the radar screen, says Vincent Smith, the Washington, D.C.-based photographer who is working on the project. Until they display their colors, that is.
When a beautiful woman steps into traditional African garb, usually brightly-colored, specially-made textiles with bold patterns, it is impossible for her to be ignored.
"She gets starred at in these outfits. She looks like a queen in it. There is no other comparable cultural cloth," says Smith.
Usually worn in the U.S. only on Sunday and at weddings and funerals, they are a large part of daily life in west and east African countries.
Smith's concept for the project is both original and simple. "Photograph African women in their traditional clothing set in distinct, but not overtly-American urban settings where most traverse," says Smith. Armed with his Nikon N55 and either Tri-X or Kodak C41 black and white film, he snaps them in places like subways, malls, alleyways, public bathrooms and hospital lobbies.
"Many of these women are invisible in society. They sort of blend in. They are not in the Washington Post. They are not in the immigration debate. And they are the number one non-white group," says Smith. But it's their enigma status that inspires the photographer.
His female subjects look particularly strong and powerful in his images because of the traditional African garb, adds Smith. As he has witnessed, a transformation takes place as a woman steps out of her street clothes and into these ornate culture costumes.
"Clothes really do make a difference and can change your mood. It's like when you put on a power suit and you're more resolute," adds Smith.
As a boy growing up in East Orange, N.J., Smith was influenced by the surrounding west African community, which made up about 80 percent of the population. But it was Sundays that really stood out for him. "By the time I was eight until about 18, I saw these beautiful church outfits worn by the women with embellishments on the heads and shoulders. It was a different message than the one I was getting in the media."
Women were blond, blue-eyed and slim in the media. Even the black women were "a watered-down version this authentic from the motherland view" he witnessed each Sunday at church.
These church-going African females were powerful and strong. Everything about them, including the music, food and other cultural modes they embodied, encapsulated Smith's soul and infinitely-inspired him. It wasn't clear when he left N.J. at age 18 and moved to Washington, D.C., however, the extent to which all this would influence his life.
In 1993, a chance meeting with an local African storekeeper planted the seed for the photo project. Smith recognized in her what had taken hold of him all those years before in his hometown. The shopkeeper was Ethiopian and had dabbled in modeling. She expressed an interest in modeling for him in her traditional dress. With her as his muse, Smith decided he would create a calendar of women in African dress. He began shooting this vision, although never shooting this particular woman.
Meeting the fall deadline for a 2007 calendar proved futile with so much work to do. Besides, Smith's older brother, Chris, had bigger ideas for his kid brother.