Morgan Otagburuagu, a 26-year-old photographer hailing from Abia State and now based in Lagos, is a visionary artist whose work transcends conventional boundaries. His captivating and experimental imagery serves as a powerful celebration of the resilience and radiance inherent in the Black female body and the luminous beauty of Black skin. In a world where the voices of young Black girls in Africa were seldom heard, Morgan felt an impassioned calling to offer them a platform for their stories to resonate. His work is a beacon of empowerment, inspiring African Black girls to embrace their unique identities, especially the richness of their skin, and to proudly embrace their authentic selves, defying the constraints of societal norms and prejudices.
Meeting Morgan and conducting an interview with him was a delightful and unique experience, and upon reading the interview, it will become evident that Morgan's role extends far beyond that of a conventional artist. He serves as a conduit for celebrating the enduring qualities of strength, beauty, and resilience, using his photography to capture the essence of Black women. His work also serves as a catalyst for sparking important conversations about identity and the journey toward self-acceptance in our ever-changing world.
Our interview with Morgan;
As far as I know, you are self- taught. When and how did you start your exploration with art and when it became your main focus?
I am self- taught indeed. My photographic journey started with YouTube, where I immersed myself in tutorials and learned the craft. Before that, I had a strong interest in fashion, influenced by the fashion magazines of my upbringing. However, it was my experiences, particularly those centered around black African women, that truly shaped me.
I saw photography as an art form and a medium to share the stories that had molded my identity. It allowed me to give a voice to experiences that had left a lasting impact on me, despite my own lack of words. Photography became a powerful tool to address societal issues, including African laws that needed attention.
As I delved into this profession, I realized I already had a story to tell, one that revolved around black African women and their unique experiences. In 2018, I started taking photography more seriously, experimenting with shoots and focusing on quality lighting. By early 2020, I was ready to use my photography to tell the stories I had witnessed growing up, particularly those of African black women and their struggles with self-acceptance and societal pressures. This topic was not widely discussed, and I felt compelled to fill that void.
There were few voices addressing the challenges faced by young black girls in Africa, and I believed it was essential to provide a platform for their stories to be heard. My work aims to empower African black girls to embrace their identity, especially their skin, and to celebrate who they are despite societal stigmas. In essence, my work revolves around giving a voice to the experiences and identities of African black women. It's about creating a platform for appreciation and empowerment. My journey involves a series of projects that explore these themes, and it's a mission that continues to evolve and make a difference.
Why did you choose photography? What is so special about this medium?
Photography, to me, is one of those unique art forms where words are not necessary. Images carry the power to convey messages, to speak to people, to address society, and to make a profound impact. This is especially true in our interconnected world, where technology has turned the globe into a global village. Through social media and the internet, my work can reach not just Nigeria, my home country, or Lagos alone but also people all over the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, and beyond.
It's an opportunity for me to share a message with everyone, a message that goes beyond borders and transcends cultural boundaries. In particular, I want to reach out to young black girls who may feel constrained by society's narrow definitions of beauty. I want them to know that their beauty is unique and valuable, that it goes far beyond the color of their skin. They can aspire to be doctors, nurses, engineers, or anything they dream of, irrespective of societal prejudices. Their skin color is not a disadvantage; it's a unique attribute that should empower them to achieve greatness.
Through my work, I have the privilege to convey this message to the world. I don't need to say much; my images speak for themselves. People understand the message, and it resonates with everyone who views my work. This silent but powerful form of expression allows me to connect with people from all walks of life and make a meaningful impact on the world.
When you work on projects like "In Bloom," do you begin with a specific theme in mind and intentionally create images to fit that theme, or does your creative process unfold more spontaneously, capturing what naturally emerges during the process? I'm curious about your approach to your work.
The genesis of my artistic projects can take one of two paths, both of equal significance. Sometimes, I begin with a preconceived theme, while other times, the message unfolds during the creative process itself. Regardless of the starting point, my focus remains on the powerful impact I aim to achieve. My creative process involves a blend of envisioning and sketching. I envision how I want the final images to look and what messages I intend to convey to those who view them. However, I don't dwell extensively on the artistic process itself. Instead, my thoughts revolve around the societal topics I wish to address.
One project that exemplifies this approach is "In Bloom." This undertaking stemmed from a two-year research endeavor into the deeply concerning issue of skin lightening prevalent in Nigeria. Shockingly, it was revealed that 76% of Nigerian women resort to skin-lightening products. This revelation spurred me to alter the narrative surrounding beauty standards. Moreover, "In Bloom" holds a personal significance. Having lost my birth parents, it became a journey that allowed me to create a body of work over three years. It not only delves into the societal issue but also taps into my emotional and personal experiences.
It's disheartening to note that, in Nigeria and potentially elsewhere, the fashion industry often favors lighter skin tones. This preference sends an erroneous message, particularly in a nation with a predominantly black population. It's paramount for young women to understand that their worth transcends the color of their skin, and their contributions to society are not confined by such superficial standards.
Your show ''In Bloom'' was the first solo in the UK; How did you feel about it? How was the reception to your art?
I've been fortunate to showcase my work there since 2020 during my first sole exhibition in Bloom in Doyle Wham. So, having my first solo exhibition felt truly special. It allowed me to connect with my art on a deeper level and share it with a wider audience. There was a noticeable shift in the way I perceived my work, as it took on a new dimension when displayed collectively.
I had the privilege of being part of London Gallery Weekend, a three-day event from the first to the third day. Over these days, more than 200 people visited the exhibition, It was a tremendous honor for me to witness their reactions and engagement with the themes explored in "In Bloom."
The exhibition provided a platform to shed light on the struggles faced by black individuals, not only in Africa but also in other parts of the world, where discrimination based on skin color is prevalent. Seeing people from diverse backgrounds connect with and relate to the topics explored in "In Bloom" was deeply rewarding. It reinforced the universality of these experiences and highlighted the importance of fostering understanding and empathy across borders.
Did you encounter challenges as a Nigerian artist trying to gain recognition on the global stage, and how did you navigate these obstacles to share your work with the world?
Absolutely, conveying the message and essence of one's work can be a challenging task, especially when it comes to bridging cultural and geographical gaps. People from different parts of the world have varied experiences and perspectives, making it essential to find the right channels to communicate effectively. Being an African artist based in Nigeria, it has been crucial for me to share my messages with the world, particularly through the lens of African narratives. In this regard, I consider myself fortunate to have had the support of a reputable representative like Doyle Wham, who has been championing my work for the past three years. They have a deep understanding of African stories and their commitment to promoting African voices have made all the difference. They comprehend the nuances and significance of the messages I aim to convey, and this has facilitated a smoother journey in getting my work across to a global audience.
However, I acknowledge that not everyone may have the same experience or access to such understanding and support. Many talented artists in Africa face significant hurdles in breaking through and sharing their messages with the world. It underscores the importance of finding the right partners and platforms to represent and amplify African voices and stories on the global stage.
In conclusion, my journey has been made relatively easier due to my collaboration with Dhawan, but I am aware that there are numerous talented artists in Africa struggling to make their voices heard internationally. It highlights the need for continued efforts to create opportunities and platforms for African artists to share their stories and perspectives with the world.
Where do we find you at the moment? Would you like to share your upcoming artistic plans?
In addition to my personal projects, I'm actively involved in the fashion industry, particularly as a fashion photographer in Nigeria. For my personal endeavors, I'm diligently working on expanding my project titled "In Bloom." My ultimate goal is to transform it into a book, possibly within the next year, allowing me to delve deeper into the topic. I believe there's a wealth of unexplored territory within the "In Bloom" concept, especially in today's climate where discussions about race have become increasingly sensitive and crucial in our society. This year, I'll be focusing on developing more projects related to this theme before the year concludes. Furthermore, I have plans to expand my work on a global scale, with upcoming projects in Hamburg, Germany.
Did you notice any positive changes or shifts in perceptions among women in your country as a result of your work?
I'm truly grateful and honored that my work has been instrumental in promoting diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. It's heartwarming to hear that designers and professionals are now actively seeking out models with darker skin tones and a love for their unique beauty. This shift towards embracing a broader spectrum of beauty standards is a significant step forward.
I've witnessed positive changes in the fashion industry, particularly in Lagos, where there's growing acceptance of diversity and the celebration of black women and their skin tones. It's heartening to receive requests from professionals who specifically want to collaborate with models who reflect the richness of African skin tones.
All artworks and photographs copywrites belong to Morgan Otagburuagu