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.”

But 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.

In 1969, British photojournalist Don McCullin visited the besieged Biafra enclave and during his excursions, McCullin encountered a malnourished Biafran albino boy.

His 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.

Writing in his autobiography, “Unreasonable Behaviour”, McCullin captures the abjection of the albino boy as a victim of war and societal opprobrium.

“As 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.”

We 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 important issue.

“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.

The 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.  

Babaeko’s 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 acceptance.

“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.

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