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sanity sanctuary Friends in Eternity by Isabel Okoro
Sanity SanctuaryPhotography Isabel Okoro

These photos show what a Black utopia could look like

Isabel Okoro’s poetic debut monograph, Friends in Eternity, imagines a world free from racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia

Isabel Okoro isn’t concerned with utopias, per se. At least not in the sense that utopia is, by definition, unachievable. Under the 21-year-old artist’s soft gaze, scenes of Black freedom and Black expression come to life: the ease of a casual embrace between a young couple, or the exuberance of teenage boys dancing around a beach. It’s a world where Black people are simply able to “exist as they are” – and hence not a world that wholly reflects reality yet, either.

“I call it a normatopia,” Okoro says over the phone from Toronto. “It exists somewhere in between reality and utopia: a representation of moments that do exist… But that I want to see become our reality all the time. It’s like my vision of an approaching future.”

Inspired by “world-building” artists like Solange and film director Wong Kar-wai, Okoro decided early on that she wanted to create her own visual universe as a space to immortalise the people who “look, think and feel” like her: the people of Africa and its diaspora. The result is a place the Lagos-born artist calls ‘Eternity’. Okoro’s debut monograph, Friends in Eternity, is a poetic introduction to a world free from the jarring realities of racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. It is a slice of what’s to come from the young artist, as Eternity continues to expand.

The images in Friends in Eternity are set primarily in Lagos. Okoro lived there until she was 15, before moving to Toronto for school. When she goes back – which she does regularly – she shoots her friends in open spaces, often bathed in warm light: nestled amid tree branches or strolling in parks; sat knees-to-chest on seashores or swinging from basketball hoops.

This choice of open space is significant, for multiple reasons. Open spaces are anchored in familiarity, rendering Okoro’s dreamlike world distinctly tangible. Nature is timeless, meaning many of the scenes – as Chukwudubem Ukaigwe points out in the book’s introduction – are tied to no particular era; immortal. But also, because reality has proved that simply being Black in open space can be met with violence and aggression in the West. And so seeing Black joy, peace, and intimacy in these settings can feel radical.

As an artist, Okoro is concerned less with giving her work a signature aesthetic than she is a certain “feeling”. Sometimes she takes a documentary approach, other times a more idealised, even semi-fictional, one. “If there’s an imaginary pendulum, it swings freely,” she says. But a “hope and trust in Black imagination” is what ties it together. And what emanates throughout the book is a near-hypnotising calmness; a quiet magic that lingers long after our eyes have switched focus.

Having started making images of her schoolmates aged 12, when her best friend brought a camera to their boarding school in Lagos, the essence of Okoro’s images has, in a lot of ways, never changed. And it seems it never will. “The whole goal for Eternity is for these images and this world to outlive me,” says Okoro in a Q&A moderated by Adé Abegunde in the book. “It’s almost a proposal… Made for us, by us.”

Friends in Eternity by Isabel Okoro is out now