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UnCommon Beauty Lagos drag, trans women, crossdressers
Photography Jah Grey

Beauty on the margins: photos of Nigeria’s gender non-conforming community

A new exhibition in Lagos titled UnCommon Beauty champions brave individuals who actualising themselves in the face of oppression

Lagos in October is hot, stifling, exhausting. But the city has a magic of reviving itself when fashion, art and design weeks come around. In one of the city’s affluent suburbs, an exhibition unfolds, the large frames of photographs pegged to lean strings of ropes. In different portraits, star subjects wear gravity-defying gowns, knitted dresses, perch-feathered corsetry, sequinned silhouettes, with faces fully glammed-up; hair, nails and neck all accessorised. 

Taking place October 22, the exhibition, titled UnCommon Beauty, shared a glimpse into the reality and beautiful existence of trans women, drag artists and cross-dressers living in Nigeria – in a country that tries to shroud their existence with a still-on-ground legislative bill, and relentlessly pushes to oppress and annihilate them. Created and directed by Priscilla Nzimiro Nwanah and executive produced by Lusanda Chauke, UnCommon Beauty is made up of two parts: a docu-series presented by Nigerian stylist and creative director Uche Uba, which episodically spotlights the 13 subjects telling their stories of struggle and navigation. And a photo series shot by Toronto-based photographer Jah Grey and directed by Uba.

Exploring what it means to be beautiful beyond society’s narrow standard of what beauty is, UnCommon Beauty is fierce, vocal and emotionally eruptive, championing the people defining themselves without constraining their boldness. We spoke to Uba and Grey on the process, importance and lessons about the project.

What is your background prior to this project?

Jah Grey: I’ve been doing photography for ten years but I started doing solely portraits in late 2013. The concept of my work began with redefining masculinity and mainly shed light on the spectrum and how fluid masculinity could be, and that stands from my own identity as a trans man and what that looks like for me coming out from my old self navigating as a Black woman to navigating life as a Black man.

I had a lot of issues with some things I was exploring now in this body, a lot of pieces that didn’t allow me to fit in because of the stereotype and expectations specifically as a Black man. My family is from Jamaica and part of being LGBTQ+ is criminalised in Jamaica so there were a lot of challenges I faced trying to become who I am. It sparked a lot of curiosity and questioning of what masculinity was and along the way I began to find a very problematic concept of masculinity and I wanted to create room for myself. So my work is an exploration of what that looks like.

How did the idea for ‘UnCommon Beauty’ first emerge?

Uche Uba: The idea originally wasn’t mine. The entirety of it was by a wonderful producer Priscilla Nzimiro Nwanah, she had reached out to me just a couple of weeks after The AMVCA awards and told me she would want me to anchor the conversation around the docu-series and also creative direct the photo-series. Prior to this, she had done what would be the foundation of this project four or five years back; she had brought together five people, including trans women and drag personalities, and had asked them questions about their experiences in the country.

What was the intent for this project?

Uche Uba: Nwanah was very interested in documenting the minority of the minorities in the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria, she wanted to document trans people, drag stars. The docu-series highlights the day-to-day experiences of each person and then the photo series captures them in beautiful and colourful dresses. The photo series she totally left everything entirely in my power as the creative director. What I did for that was to interpret their realities and stories from what our conversations had been in the docu-series and tried to incorporate it in the photo series.

What was the process like?

Uche Uba: To be honest, it was a bit hectic. I haven’t had to anchor or lead a conversation. To me, it was like an eye-opener listening to their different stories and learning everything they’ve been through. It made me see the queer community from a different perspective that I hadn’t seen. It was very tasking having that conversation with them because of the language barrier and experience barrier because most of the things I heard from them weren’t relatable to me. It was the first time I got to champion that kind of conversation and it was tasking listening to their stories, some of which were gut-wrenching stories.

Jah Grey: The process was very different from what I would usually do here for many reasons. I wasn’t particularly used to the environment too well but I think what made it easier was there were already participants for the documentary. I was in Nigeria for a month and two weeks and it was spent exploring a bit of Lagos, meeting the participants and having conversations with them. I got a chance to dive deeper into their stories of who they were and also their experiences.

How necessary did you feel this project was knowing that it will capture the visibility of these trans women, drag personalities and cross-dressers in a country that often refuses to acknowledge their existence?

Uche Uba: I actually asked that question as well when the project came to me because it’s basically someone who sees herself as an ally but isn’t a member of the queer community who was making this project. So I asked her why she was trying to tell this story. But at the end of the day, I also realised that given the fact that queer people are marginalised, there might not be that much of a resource to pull off something of this capacity and to be able to tell our own story. The trans people I know of are still trying to come to terms with their reality in Nigeria, navigating the system and the country as a whole. So it’s going to take a while for someone to centre themselves saying they want to tell this story as part of the community they exist in. So it made sense for someone who had the influence and resources and does understand the struggles of those in this community and appreciate them to tell this story on their behalf. 

I also did ask why we are telling this particular story. We have seen the queer people who are deemed worthy, are the face of the community, maybe because of their class or how much access they have. We already know their own stories, so we wanted to get people we very much didn’t know – people who are struggling with the harsh reality of what it means to be a trans person or drag personality living in Nigeria.

Jah Grey: It was very relevant simply because we exist. It will always be a relevant topic because we are humans too, we have our joys, pain, differences but of course, we navigate a lot of challenges. It felt important to me to take on this project because in my day-to-day, I’m documenting more specifically Black men and I talk about masculinity, vulnerability, joy, healing. I have my own life experiences here in Toronto, but I was very much curious to learn and hear about the stories of folks that live in Nigeria. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings in regard to the safety of these folks, I was like ‘after the project, what happens to the individuals that are shown around?’ Because now they would be in the public light and everyone would see them.

There is a very structured semantic behind the exhibition title UnCommon Beauty who came up with the name?

Uche Uba: It was originally the producer. The name UnCommon Beauty was about documenting people who are on the margins of society in Nigeria. They are beautiful and to be honest, there shouldn’t be anything uncommon about the way they look or the way their beauty is perceived. Beauty at the end of the day is in the eye of the beholder but it is very important to point out the fact that these are people that have been branded unusual but there is still beauty within the context of what is uncommon. As much as possible, the more you open your mind and learn about these people and their reality, the less uncommon they are. But at the end of the day, this is where we are as a society and it puts it out there, that these are people society has refused to acknowledge but they are still beautiful. 

What was your biggest takeaway from the project?

Uche Uba: My biggest takeaway from the project was there is always room to listen, you can’t know everything – people’s experiences differ. You can’t really understand anybody living under a rock and you aren’t aware of the reality of other people besides you. It definitely opened me up in terms of listening, acceptance – there was just so much but I think my biggest takeaway was creating space for other people to settle into.