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Omokanye’s creative, human images were shortlisted for this year’s Contemporary African Photography Prize

Photographer Adetona Omokanye’s Spiritually Fashionable images reference masquerade figures and contemporary West African fashion.Adetona Omokanye/Handout

Though he began his career documenting images for non-governmental organizations, Adetona Omokanye came to realize he didn’t want his photography to focus solely on what he describes as the “poverty gaze.” The 32-year-old photographer, who splits his time working between Toronto and Lagos, Nigeria, knew the rich spectrum of people, creativity and customs that span the West African region deserve as much attention as the humanitarian stories he was tasked with chronicling.

“I think that there’s so much to do as a photographer,” Omokanye says, describing the shift in mindset that would send his career in a livelier direction. “I said to myself, okay, I think I have to take a break from this.”

Inspired by a former classmate, Omokanye turned his lens toward individuals with dwarfism, seeking to display their daily lives with an animation and abundance historically not afforded to people in that community. “It’s a story of people that are unique in their own way,” he says.

Photographer Adetona OmokanyeAdetona Omokanye/Handout

As a testament to his attentive approach, Omokanye became the first Nigerian to receive a Creative Bursary Award from Getty Images for the series. “Adetona’s project Beyond 4 Foot 10 Inches really stood out to the judging panel when selecting winners for the 2019 Getty Images + Verizon Disability Stories Grant because he captured the humanity of his subjects in a way that was bold and empowering and really let the viewer feel their personalities,” says Claudia Marks, senior art director at Getty Images. “The photographs were purposefully inclusive and refrained from ‘othering,’ which is what we seek to do with all our visuals in The Disability Collection.”

Omokanye’s ability to shift a narrative with his curious and compassionate eye can also be seen in his Streethawker series, a set of vivid shots of merchants who roam with a variety of commodities balanced expertly on their heads. “I was drawn to the colourful and artistic elements of them,” Omokanye says. “There’s so much power in those images.”

The commanding compositions and superimposed silhouettes of Streethawker have evolved into his Spiritually Fashionable project. Using digital collaging techniques and photos taken in two different yet aesthetically linked forums, he navigates the visual and ideological relationship between the elaborate dress of Egúngún – which describes a Yoruba masquerade or masked figure engaged in ancestor reverence – and models posing in designs during Nigeria’s Valentine Festival in 2019.

“I spent a lot of time developing this world,” he says about the months-long process of defining the pan-thematic, kaleidoscopic portraits that were shortlisted for this year’s Contemporary African Photography Prize. “I didn’t want to rush it. That’s one thing about being creative; it comes with exploration.”

The motifs and muses surveyed in Spiritually Fashionable complement the intensifying spotlight on African fashion designers such as Thebe Magugu, Bloke’s Faith Oluwajimi and Kenneth Ize. Their meteoric rise is one that Omokanye himself should anticipate given the scope of his ambition

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