In Conversation with: Chika Okoli

Chika Okoli is a photographer, content producer, and filmmaker from Nigeria whose work heavily relies on visual storytelling as a medium to project a well-balanced narrative of Africa and its diaspora. Her work documents identity, culture, and the daily lifestyle of Africans unrestricted by borders. She is passionate about visual storytelling and has worked with reputable companies and individual brands alike in crafting visual narratives from conception to execution.

My Grandmother’s George

George is a popular cloth worn by Ibo women in Nigeria for special occasions. These wrappas are some of my grandmother’s most prized possessions. They’ve been with her since the 60s and have seen a lot of Igba-Nkwus (traditional weddings), August meetings, and other ceremonies–so much so that they’ve become reminders of some of her most important life moments. It has such a regal aesthetic to it. This is why for this project, I reimagined what my grandmother in her youth would look like wearing her George during the Victorian era.

Emerald Arguelles: How did you begin photography?

Chika Okoli: Photography, for me, is an expression of self. I don’t consider myself a writer as I find it tedious sometimes to express myself and my thoughts in words. I discovered photography back in 2013. It was about a year after I had moved to New York from Lagos, Nigeria, and was still grappling with this new identity as an immigrant in a foreign land. I remember the culture shock I experienced and, for the first time seeing myself as black, not Nigerian. I started off with self-portraits, trying to discover myself through the portraits I took. It developed into a passion, and I turned my lens on other people going through the same experience as me in a photo series I titled NYgerians. That was the first time I considered myself a photographer.

EA: How did you begin creating content for Africans by Africans?

CO: As a Nigerian in New York, I found myself yearning to connect back to my roots. Something I took for granted while living in Nigeria. There is something about moving to a foreign land that makes you hyper-aware of your cultural identity. Being here exposed me to the nuances of misrepresentation and the dangers of a single story. I also noticed a growing demand for the proper visual representation of African countries online, as we were tired of seeing the same old tropes in mainstream media. The rise of Instagram and other visual social sites further perpetuated these narratives. I saw an opportunity to contribute to this cause by creating a space for cross-cultural exchange between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora by sharing compelling visuals online and populating the digital space with more imageries representative of the many African experiences that cut across intersections.

EA: What are the most important elements of storytelling to you?

CO: For me, authenticity and motive are key. Why are you telling this story? It has to be deeper than getting recognition. I think s storyteller’s motive informs authenticity. They go hand in hand. If you are drawn to a story for the wrong reasons, it will reflect in your work. The storyteller has to have a strong connection to the story they are trying to tell. You are less likely to compromise on values if you are strongly tied to the story you’re telling. Even if the subject matter is strange to you at first, it is your duty to find that connection within the story and use it to inform.

EA: What did you learn while working on My Grandmother’s George?

CO: For me, it made me see my grandmother beyond who she is now–a grandmother. She led a full life. She was once a young woman like me and experienced life and all the struggles and joy that came with it. It made me

EA:  What is the historical context of the Igbo George wrappers?

CO:  George wrappas are beautifully embroidered fabrics that are very popular amongst the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria. It has historically been used by nobles and royal families because of its regal appearance. It is still widely known as a fabric for celebratory functions and important life moments like Igba Nkwus (traditional wedding), Naming Ceremony, August Meetings et.c. It is mainly worn over a lace blouse with dramatic sleeves and a head tie. It can also be gifted to a young woman during her rite of passage or to a mother who has just finished Omugwo (when a mother stays with her daughter to take care of her newborn child for three months). But it is not limited to these.

EA: What are the emotional connections you have to My Grandmother’s George?

CO: My Grandmother’s George cloths are reminders of some of her life’s moments. A great deal of her life’s most important moments woven tightly into its threads. It carries history with it. It is important to me not only because it’s cultural but because it is symbolic in the story it carries.

EA: Why do you feel this series is important?

CO: It’s important to me that I document my cultural heritage. In Nigeria, cultural traditions are mainly passed down orally. Still, these photos are going to live online, and it is my hope that future generations can refer to it and say, “this is what an Igbo George looks like

To view more of Chika Okoli’s work please visit their website.