Bell-Roberts Publishing, the publishers of ARTsouthAFRICA magazine, have just re-launched snapped – an African quarterly photographic journal – in association with PhotoHire Cape Town! snapped magazine spoke to Jenevieve Aken, the Nigerian photographer and model whose series, ‘The Masked Woman’, was featured in this year’s 2014 LagosPhoto Festival. This self-portrait series explores Aken’s representation of gender in Nigerian society through a performative lens.
Jenevieve Aken: Working as a model prior to begining my photography career, I was able to learn factors that made good images, such as the composition, pose, style, and having the right body language. In my own photographic work, I saw that this has to start with me, as the model of my images. This is not me as a model, but as a female.
In your series, The Masked Woman, you adopt performative strategies. How does this influence the body of work?
In the series The Masked Woman, I performed for the camera in order to speak about the role of women in Nigeria and their reputations and perceptions. To do this, I acted in front of the camera to become the super femme fatale character. In Nigeria, women often have constricting roles of how they are supposed to act, and I wanted to speak about this.
The male gaze is one of many concepts that dominate feminist discourse. In your images, how are you defining the women who perform for the male gaze willingly, versus those who are simply trying to navigate the often-sexist genre of nude portrait photography?
I found it empowering to turn the camera on myself, after working as a model for many years. In Nigeria, certain women do not fit into squarely defined roles. Perhaps they do not want to marry right now, perhaps they are focused on their careers. This series speaks to empowering women to have the freedom to make their own choices. One of these might be their freedom of sexuality, and this is a part of the series that I wanted to stress. In that way, the nudity is not about fitting into the male gaze but for the woman to express herself the way that she is.
Masks are obviously important in this series. What is the cultural significance, if any, and in what way does the addition of props add to your narrative?
I used the masks in the series because I did not want to portray myself as the model, I wanted it to represent every woman in a more general sense. This makes the body anonymous, and it can stand in for any woman in our society. The series is in one sense a self-portrait, but it is also not about myself, it is about creating a fictional character that I play.
Why have you chosen to use yourself as the subject of these photographs instead of a model?
I have worked as a model for many years for other photographers, so it seemed to make sense to turn the camera on myself in my own projects.
How does the idea of heritage influence your photographic style?
As a Nigerian, I am interested in exploring how our society is changing. For women, there are new kinds of roles that allow for more options. For example, a woman can now focus on her career without feeling like they are missing something by not having a man or being married. This is empowering because it changes the older dynamics of gender relations. For me, being a Nigerian is a major part of my work because I am speaking to my culture.
What are a few trends that have caught your eye in relation to contemporary African photography?
When I started working as a photographer, I was mainly interested in documentary and photographing the environment around me. I have been inspired by many female artists working in Africa and abroad who use performance in their projects, and this has been a major shift in the way I work now.
What are you currently working on, and what should we look out for in the future with regard to your work?
I am working on a new series that is a continuation of “The Masked Woman”, in terms of thinking about the same kinds of issues. My new project looks at the “Imaginary Bride” and how marriage is becoming overrated in Nigeria. This is a project I am currently working on now, and I look forward to exhibiting it in the near future.