In the Yoruba language, Obinrin means “woman” and Akikanju means “Hero”, so the closest translation to English is Heroine.
This was the name of a portrait series by photographer Foluke Sowunmi celebrating heroic women around the world who have knocked down barriers, opened closed doors, initiated change and fought for women emancipation, giving it the right narrative and attention. Photos from the series were launched on International Women’s Day.
But this write-up is not about me.
I got a DM on Instagram from Foluke inviting me to be part of the portrait series. I didn’t know her, but went to her Instagram page to see her photos. To say I was blown away by the quality of her work is truly an understatement. She captured her subjects with a directness and sophistication that I really admired, so I agreed to be part of it.
When people say that you need to know people in order to get things done in Nigeria (or anywhere else, for that matter), that is only partially true. Sometimes brilliance is undeniably evident that you need no third-party recommendation.
Foluke was incredibly sweet and was accommodating of my location and offered to book a studio closer to my home.
At the studio, I met her and the makeup artist for the day, Valerie. I got talking to Valerie as she worked on my face and she shared with me how she used to work in a bank but was so miserable that she quit with no clear plans for what she would do next.
She decided to take makeup classes, purely so that she could do her own makeup better and realised that she enjoyed doing it. She had an idea to take more classes and improve her skills and from doing makeup gratis for friends and family, she gradually moved to turning it into a profitable business. I was impressed by her gutsyness to walk away from a comfortable though unfulfilling job and her determination to find a path that would bring her more joy.
She spoke about how she grew up in a creative household. Her mother made wedding gowns and she and her sister helped her out. Today her sister is a hair stylist, creating incredibly striking and avant garde styles (she showed me some photos). They often work together on magazine shoots and fashion shows, doing the hair and makeup.
I noted how their creativity had been encouraged and nurtured from childhood and how they have both come full circle working in the field that they had a lot of fun playing in when younger.
By this time my gorgeous makeup had been completed and I took my place behind the camera. Now I am not a big fan of taking photos. There’s something about the posing and preening that makes me feel really uncomfortable.
Foluke is an antidote to that. Poised, skilled and sure of what she wants, she totally commanded the studio and gave me the clearest directions I have ever received from a photographer. I was never in any doubt about where to turn my head or how to sit. She also caught little mannerisms of mine and would ask that I do it again for the camera.
I was frankly awed by how someone who looked so young could already have gained considerable wealth of experience with a camera. She glided across the studio on her stool, her camera at a jaunty angle in her hands. The resulting photos were breathtaking.
All through the day, I kept thinking about how this is such a different world from the one I grew-up in. Then, children were expected to be seen but not heard. You weren’t expected to run a business of your own or embark on any kind of solo project until you had acquired “enough” work experience under the tutelage of someone older and wiser.
Not anymore! Now, people who have never worked for anyone, have ideas for a business or what they would like to do with their lives and set-about implementing them. Learning is life-long and not constrained within the school walls. In fact, there is a growing acknowledgement that much of what takes place in the classroom is NOT learning.
I like this new world. I love meeting bold and audacious women like Foluke and Valerie and hearing their stories. I am so happy to cheer them on and I celebrate them as true Obinrin Akikanju.