When “albinos” rule: challenging assumptions in White Ebony – Toni Kan
Yetunde Babaeko’s solo exhibition, White Ebony, curated by
the inimitable Sandra Obiago opened on Saturday April 25, 2019 at Temple Muse.
Comprised of 20 photographs, the show which runs for two
months focuses on albinos and albinism. According to www.healthline.com “a defect in one of several genes that produce or distribute
melanin causes albinism. The defect may result in the absence of
melanin production, or a reduced amount of melanin production.”
in much of Africa, albinism is treated not as a genetic snafu but as something
evil with albinos regarded as people to be feared and ostracized.
1969, British photojournalist Don McCullin visited the besieged Biafra enclave
and during his excursions, McCullin encountered a malnourished Biafran albino
shot of the Albino boy, with large head and distended stomach caused by
kwashiorkor, was a defining image of the war showing not just a child caught in
war but a child twice devastated by war and ostracism.
in his autobiography, “Unreasonable Behaviour”, McCullin captures the abjection
of the albino boy as a victim of war and societal opprobrium.
I entered I saw a young albino boy. To be a starving Biafran orphan was to be
in a most pitiable situation, but to be a starving albino Biafran was to be in
a position beyond description. Dying of starvation, he was still among his
peers an object of ostracism, ridicule and insult.”
fear that which we do not know and a lack of knowledge often fuels alienation.
This has been the lot of albinos from time and a body of work like Yetunde
Babaeko’s White Ebony seeks to open up robust conversations around this
“My work is not there to make
you feel good, its purpose is to trigger you to think and expand your
knowledge,” explains the photographer who worked in concert with the Lagos
based The Albino Foundation.
works in the series feature albinos not as societies rejects but as models who
occupy the center of the frame as objects of attraction. This is heightened by
having them decked out in period costumes to create images that mimic baroque
era portraits by the likes of Caravaggio and Bernini.
works in White Ebony are important in forcing on to focus on subjects we would
usually favour with two gazes – surprise and maybe revulsion. With her focus on
albinos, Yetunde Babaeko is forcing us to take a third look, one that makes us
linger and think and in thinking we are forced to reconsider our notion of the
albino as an object of ostracism, ridicule and revulsion.
In this light, White Ebony challenges our preconceived
notions of beauty and what we consider beautiful. By presenting stylized and
sensual images of the albino, she is speaking a new visual language in which
the stigma is stripped away.
This is particularly poignant in the single subject photo The
Truth where an albino is seemingly unzipping his melanin-deprived skin to show
that deep beneath we are all the same.
The photographs, especially those that juxtapose albinos
against their darker skinned mates are powerful in forcing us through the use
of contrast to interrogate our fixed ideas of what constitutes the subject and
the other when it comes to pigmentation and by juxtaposing a melanin pigmented
subject with an albino she forces us to recalibrate our ideas of the norm while
bidding us to make the switch from discrimination and stigma to openness and
“Commitment” may well be the most provocative photo in the
collection in the sense of its managing to address two seemingly taboo subjects
within one frame. The photograph shows a burqa clad women hugging a half-naked
albino male from behind.
Contemplating the image one is hit by the bold statement.
Yetunde Babaeko’s subjects are saying it is okay to love across not just tribe
but notions of what is acceptable.
Another powerful photograph is “The Twins” which features an
albino lying cheek to cheek with a dark skinned model in a pose that recalls
the renaissance era frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel.
The photographs in this exhibition are much more than the sum
of their parts, they are powerful images that challenge assumptions and
stereotypes by forcing to contemplate subjects we would rather avert our gazes
from and that is the triumph of White Ebony.