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17 Oct

In pictures: Hairstyles and heritage in Mali’s capital, Bamako

In pictures: Hairstyles and heritage in Mali’s capital, Bamako

Photographer Nybé Ponzio celebrates the sweetness and cultural importance of Black hairstyles in his series ‘Afrohair’

“A straightforward example,” begins Paris-born, Mali-based photographer Nybé Ponzio. “Being gap-toothed in Europe is contrary to the sweetness standards. In Africa it is an indication of elegance to the purpose where some people go thus far as to create this gap between their teeth.” 

Ponzio is talking concerning the cultural differences he experienced while growing up in Bailly-Romainvilliers, a small town within the suburbs of Paris, and Bamako, Mali – his home country and where he has been living since 2021. The divergence of thought had a heavy impact on him. “There have been things inside me that clashed with Western society standards and since I didn’t understand this stuff, I used to be hung up on my differences.”  

Ponzio now not struggles with feelings of insecurity but these early experiences, alongside the customarily negative portrayals of Mali and other African and Afro-descendant cultures in Western media – overwhelmingly, he says, images of chaos and war – have fuelled the work he now makes as a photographer. His aim is to interrupt stereotypes and misconceptions, re-writing the narrative from the attitude of locals themselves. “I share the fact of life in Mali,” he says. “It’s a type of representation to reappropriate your personal history. As I used to be in a position to emancipate myself, I hope to be a task model for my community.” 

An ongoing project of his is the “Afrohair series”, an ode to the sweetness and creativity of the Black hairstyles he sees around him in Bamako. Fighting against the stigmatisation and mistaken view of African hairstyles as unprofessional, Ponzio wants his work to revive pride in Black hair and decolonise received ideas about it. Below he shares more concerning the project and the importance of celebrating Black hair.

Why did you begin photographing? 

Nybé Ponzio: I feel I began photographing because to me a camera is a tool of expression, it allows me to defend myself, sublimate people and share my centres of interests.

I purchased my first camera in 2016 after I was an intern in Montreal. I used to travel loads back then and after I would return home and share my experiences with my friends. They’d never consider me. That’s why I made a decision to start out capturing my experiences through images.

How did the ‘Afrohair’ project begin?

Nybé Ponzio: The Afrohair project began in 2021 after I moved to Africa. I already had the concept of documenting African hairstyles for years however it was vital for me to have the option to do it from the source, because I would like to remind people of the origins of those hairstyles which are now popular and infrequently subject to cultural appropriation. They’re far more than simply hairstyles, they’re heritage.

I began with photographs of youngsters’s hairstyles since it’s about education, I would like young Black girls to have the option to discover with them and regain the pride of getting coily hair. From my personal experience, Black hair has been stigmatised and mocked a lot that in my youth I rejected it by relaxing it or shaving all of it off. I feel it will be important to just accept natural hair in all its complexity.

You said that African hairstyles are greater than a mode, they’re about heritage. Are you able to say more about that? 

Nybé Ponzio: African hairstyles are an ancestral heritage which firstly allows the protection of the hair but not only that. It’s an art which is used to point ethnicity (for instance Fulani braids, Bantu knots), marital status, age, social condition and life events. Ancestral hairstyles are an actual communication tool.

Hair in Black culture expresses and demonstrates beauty, African-ness, spirituality, freedom, and Black creativity. It’s a powerful symbol of Black cultural identity.

Is the project ongoing or is it accomplished now?

Nybé Ponzio: The project remains to be ongoing, I consider it to be the project of a lifetime because I really need the emancipation of my community while also educating society typically on the topic.

What are you working on now?

Nybé Ponzio: I work on the promotion of the artistic field in Mali, with friends we reflect on find out how to bring out a Malian creative scene. We’re currently in a situation of political crisis and I feel that art in all its types of expression can bring loads to the country.

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