When London based photographer Juliana Kasumu embarked on an intense Google search for hair methods used before slavery and colonization in Nigeria, she naturally stumbled upon the work of the late photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere.
Ojeikere is renowned for his ongoing photography project documenting the elaborate braided and threaded hairstyles from Nigeria in the 1960s and 70s.
Kasumu, who was born and raised in South East London to two Nigerian immigrants, realized then that she had found the best point of reference for Irun Kiko, a photography series she created to showcase the old art of hair threading.
“A lot of my work just focuses on my interests really on the African diaspora, more specifically my Nigerian heritage. I started off with me just getting to know myself because it’s kind of surprising that I literally had no idea about the history of things like the Biafra War,” said the 23-year-old. “So every time I start a new project it’s kind of me trying to educate myself and at the same time me trying to educate other people.”
That hunger for the history of her homeland manifested into beautiful work of art. The Irun Kiko project includes over 20 photos of women modeling different threaded designs. Kasumu shoots using film so the results are raw and textured black and white snapshots solely focused on the hair.
“Back then you could have your hair in a certain style and it could determine what tribe you were from or it could determine what family you were born into. Just so many different things,” she said through a pure British accent.
But times have changed and so has the idea of how we feel about our hair and how others view it. Kasumu says the timing for this project is important as the natural hair movement has taken on life of its own and black hair continues to be the avenue through which cultural appropriation dwells. Kasumu who also did this project as part of her dissertation, says in the end, Irun Kiko was a look into how women either conform to or rebel against European standards of beauty.
“Even with the natural hair movement I found that a lot people’s responses to the hair threading method today is that it’s quite an ugly hairstyle and that it’s not something that they could ever rock today. It’s as if it’s the most unappealing thing, which is quite funny because way back when it was such a thing that was so culturally relevant, so just that contrast was interesting to me,” she said. Also, in the 21st century it’s being used for fashion statements by people who might not have an understanding of where these hair methods originated. [They’re] doing it because it looks good not because they understand the significance of what’s happening.”
Take a look at the full Irun Kiko series in our gallery (link above) to see how Kasumu honors black hair history. You’ll also see more of the beautiful work of the late J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere.