Through a series of life-size self-portraits, Nigerian-American photographer Hakeem Adewumi (b. 1990) invites viewers to join him in seeking and establishing his place within the African Diaspora. For Adewumi, this is a lifelong negotiation—balancing who he is, with who he is expected to be. Born in the U.S. to an American mother and Nigerian father, the artist was largely influenced by Black American culture. “The longing to understand my Nigerian heritage prompted an exploration of my identity. This allowed me to claim parts of myself that might have remained invisible. Non-existent. Overshadowed by a range of cultural limitations.”

Informed by his own movements throughout the African Diaspora—Atlantic-crossings, Mason-Dixon line crossings—the artist references colonial pasts while drawing viewers into imagined futures. The overt studio setting can appear almost anthropological—as if he is presenting his body for study. Yet it is in this way that Adewumi directly challenges a generation of photographers who rendered their subjects as immobile, flattened representations of Black and Indigenous people. Here, the artist tries to undo a language of disempowerment, while reconsidering what it means to be seen. What it means to be queer. Standing firm and proud. Unapologetic. On his own terms. Within a combination of moving and still images Adewumi’s carefully positioned body is adorned and accompanied by props that are rich in symbolism. Guinea fowl as a talisman of protection. A tattoo commemorating the words of Sojourner Truth. Collard greens as an homage to the artist’s share-cropping lineage in Texas—the stem of the bush subversively sexual. While being playful and coy, Adewumi embodies all that he is, while contending that queerness has been, and will always be ever-present. Whether we see it or not. The scale of the work, and how he centers himself in the frame is an unabashed taking of space which challenges viewers to a one-on-one encounter. The sort of encounter that has the potential to overcome generalized stereotypes. 

Adewumi’s work is a timely and relevant exploration of Black and queer identity in ever-evolving socio-political and art landscapes. Yet the artist has built a visual vocabulary on the foundation of aesthetics and inquiry that have come before him, as he plays a role in paving the way for what comes next. 

Lise Ragbir

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