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Nybé Ponzio
Photography Nybé Ponzio

In pictures: Hairstyles and heritage in Mali’s capital, Bamako

Photographer Nybé Ponzio celebrates the beauty and cultural importance of Black hairstyles in his series ‘Afrohair’

“A simple example,” begins Paris-born, Mali-based photographer Nybé Ponzio. “Being gap-toothed in Europe is contrary to the beauty standards. In Africa it is a sign of elegance to the point where some people go so far as to create this gap between their teeth.” 

Ponzio is talking about the cultural differences he experienced while growing up in Bailly-Romainvilliers, a small town in the suburbs of Paris, and Bamako, Mali – his home country and where he has been living since 2021. The divergence of thought had a heavy impact on him. “There were things within me that clashed with Western society standards and because I didn’t understand these things, I was hung up on my differences.”  

Ponzio no longer struggles with feelings of insecurity but these early experiences, alongside the often negative portrayals of Mali and other African and Afro-descendant cultures in Western media – overwhelmingly, he says, images of chaos and war – have fuelled the work he now makes as a photographer. His aim is to break stereotypes and misconceptions, re-writing the narrative from the perspective of locals themselves. “I share the reality of life in Mali,” he says. “It is a form of representation to reappropriate your own history. As I was able to emancipate myself, I hope to be a role model for my community.” 

An ongoing project of his is the “Afrohair series”, an ode to the beauty and creativity of the Black hairstyles he sees around him in Bamako. Fighting against the stigmatisation and mistaken view of African hairstyles as unprofessional, Ponzio wants his work to restore pride in Black hair and decolonise received ideas about it. Below he shares more about the project and the importance of celebrating Black hair.

Why did you start photographing? 

Nybé Ponzio: I think I started photographing because to me a camera is a tool of expression, it allows me to defend myself, sublimate people and share my centres of interests.

I bought my first camera in 2016 when I was an intern in Montreal. I used to travel a lot back then and when I would return home and share my experiences with my friends. They would never believe me. That’s why I decided to start capturing my experiences through images.

How did the ‘Afrohair’ project begin?

Nybé Ponzio: The Afrohair project started in 2021 when I moved to Africa. I already had the idea of documenting African hairstyles for years but it was important for me to be able to do it from the source, because I want to remind people of the origins of these hairstyles that are now popular and often subject to cultural appropriation. They are much more than just hairstyles, they are heritage.

I started with photographs of children’s hairstyles because it’s about education, I want young Black girls to be able to identify with them and regain the pride of having coily hair. From my personal experience, Black hair has been stigmatised and mocked so much that during my youth I rejected it by relaxing it or shaving it all off. I think it is important to accept natural hair in all its complexity.

You said that African hairstyles are more than a style, they are about heritage. Can you say more about that? 

Nybé Ponzio: African hairstyles are an ancestral heritage which firstly allows the protection of the hair but not only that. It is an art which is used to indicate ethnicity (for example Fulani braids, Bantu knots), marital status, age, social condition and life events. Ancestral hairstyles are a real communication tool.

Hair in Black culture expresses and demonstrates beauty, African-ness, spirituality, freedom, and Black creativity. It is a strong symbol of Black cultural identity.

Is the project ongoing or is it completed now?

Nybé Ponzio: The project is still ongoing, I consider it to be the project of a lifetime because I really want the emancipation of my community while also educating society in general on the subject.

What are you working on now?

Nybé Ponzio: I work on the promotion of the artistic field in Mali, with friends we reflect on how to bring out a Malian creative scene. We are currently in a situation of political crisis and I think that art in all its forms of expression can bring a lot to the country.