The Nigerian-American Siblings Using Traditional Family Portraiture to Celebrate Their Heritage

Tolu Oye as told to Claudia Owusu and Kanyinsola Oye

Photographs have always been a way for my family to hold on to our past—no matter how far we moved, or how complicated the idea of “home” became for us. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, I keenly remember my mother dragging me and my siblings every year to the JCPenney Portraits studio for our family picture.

What made the ritual so uncomfortable was that we were not dressed like other Midwestern families at the mall. My mother had us all in matching golden-brown-and-beige traditional ankara, an African wax-print fabric with vibrant patterns.

Heads hung low, my siblings and I would walk quickly past the food court at the mall, eyes watering with tears of embarrassment as our mother led us to the portrait studio. Bystanders at the mall would stare in bewilderment as we dragged our feet behind our mother, our matching ankara outfits crisp with starch and shining just as bright as the mall’s Christmas decorations.

These outfits were not just your average off-the-rack African wax prints. Rather they were hand-picked out of Nigerian fashion magazines like Ovation. My mother would add her own flourishes to the designs, and then pass our measurements to our aunt in Nigeria, who bought fabric and visited tailors, making sure each outfit was ready for my father to pick up on one of his regular visits to his native Lagos. Often they would spend hours on the phone, refining the looks and chatting until my aunt’s phone credit ran out.

<cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Oye</cite>
Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Oye

As a child, I resented my mother’s love for ankara and her desire to pass that love on to my siblings and me. I hated the way the rough texture rubbed against my skin and the looks I got for wearing it out in public. On Sundays, in preparation for church, my siblings and I would angrily rummage underneath our beds for our wrinkled traditional clothes, counting down the hours until we were able to return home and rip them off our bodies. We would all scurry to the car, hoping not to be seen by our neighbors, who always looked at us questionably whenever they saw us in our traditional attire. Our summers became a routine: If we weren’t sitting in front of the television screen, repeating after American television shows to perfect our American accents, then we were begging our parents to buy us the latest clothes from the mall. We did not want to be African, let alone Nigerian.

It wasn’t until my mother forced me to take a trip to Nigeria, in 2012, that I began to understand the importance of home and the privilege of being able to return. As soon as we arrived in Nigeria, my grandmother invited all the children in the community to eat with us. One by one, she filled our plates with rice and stew, giving seconds and thirds, until we were all full and sitting comfortably in her front yard. For the first time, I saw my mother with her family, laughing and catching up on lost time—I thought it was beautiful. For the first time, I regretted all the years I had spent hating my culture. In the days that followed, my aunt made a big deal out of only speaking to me in Yoruba, and invited me along whenever she had to go to the market and choose ankara designs. Getting close with her through Nigerian fashion made me look at it in a new way. Suddenly I saw the innovation of the Nigerian women in the marketplace, their wide-toothed smiles and cackling laughter as they sold woven fabric, fresh vegetables, and beads. I began to equate Nigeria with the strength of women and our ability to make something out of nothing.

<cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Oye</cite>

I went back to Nigeria alone last December to visit extended family and to work on branding for our family business, Oye Green, an online retailer for African beauty and hair products. I spent Christmas with my mother’s family in North Lagos, where people spilled in and out of the house from morning to evening, dancing to the tunes of an enthusiastic DJ; and then I spent New Year’s with my father’s family on the other side of town, where the men sat comfortably under a hovering tent, catching up over chilled Guinness. I walked around with an ease that I wasn’t used to in the U.S. Here in Nigeria, I felt myself among family in a new way. As I moved through the house, I noticed that the guests and distant relatives of my paternal grandparents were staring at me, their eyes following my every move as I made my way across the room. I thought nothing of it. After all, I had bright-green box braids that stretched to my lower back, and my Yoruba was heavily littered with English words. If I stood out in America, I’d definitely stand out here too. As I walked past the kitchen, a heavy-handed woman suddenly grabbed me by the arm, and peering into my face, asked, “Omo tani ye?” Whose daughter are you?

My grandfather, entering from the back room responded, “That’s my granddaughter.”

“No wonder! She looks just like her grandmother,” the woman retorted.

I stood there quietly, surprised at the emphasis she placed on her words: “You look just like your grandmother.”

<cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Oye</cite>
Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Oye

Later on, after all the guests had spilled out of the house and the white plastic chairs were all neatly stacked by the gate entrance, my grandfather led me to the living room and pulled out a stack of old family albums. He flipped each page gently, like it was something delicate, especially the page where my grandmother stood proudly in a beautiful lace ensemble. There she was—a woman I barely recall meeting, a woman whose face was the same as my own: Bolanle Cecilia Oye. Her middle name had been passed down to me, as well as the spread of her nose and her deep-set eyes. As we flipped through the pages of the albums, my grandfather told me the story of my family, their migration from Nigeria to London, and back to Nigeria again—always with a purpose and an intent, always carrying their history with them, always keeping a record in photographs.

My grandmother migrated from Nigeria to join my grandfather in London in 1969, where she pursued a degree in data processing and computer programming. Along with my paternal grandfather, they began to build a home, a little version of Nigeria where fellow African immigrants gathered on the weekends, with the men dressed in wide-leg English pantsuits and the women in elaborate laces, their big afros held tightly in place by geles. In one of the photos, my grandmother stood off to the side, staring into what I can only imagine was the dance floor as her hands braced her sides, perhaps ready to break out into a dance move. Other partygoers crowded around, captivated by the person behind the lens. Whether it was a wedding, a naming ceremony, or a funeral, every weekend was a celebration, a day of remembrance of who they were and where they came from.

In February of 2019, after returning to the United States, I had an idea: I would try to recreate some of my family’s portraits from my childhood but, this time, instead of resisting the ankara prints and other symbols of our Nigerian heritage, I would celebrate them by reinterpreting what Nigeria meant to me. I called my friends Dotun Abeshinbioke and Travis Matthews. Then I had my younger siblings, Kanyinsola, 18, and Enoch, 13, make the trip from Ohio and Washington to New York City, where I’m studying fashion at FIT.

I started by creating for my sister and me a version of my grandmother’s favorite style out of ankara: the Iro ati Guba, a top and skirt wrapper combo, olaku style. (Olaku is a short piece of material that is used to wrap around the waist.) In my grandmother’s days, that look reflected the youthfulness of young Nigerian women, who often wore such outfits with small leather handbags and kitten heels. From the other end of the phone in Columbus, my mother, Adepeju, gave me instructions on how to cut the lace, the width of the neck piece, the length of the arms, and the proper way of tying the wrapper. For my brother, I created a durag out of traditional ankara fabric with a silk inner lining matched with the agbada, a four-piece male suit that is usually worn during formal celebrations. The agbada is typically paired with the Eti Aja, a traditional headpiece for men. But pairing the agbada with a durag seemed like a better reflection of our identity as Nigerian-Americans, having lived one half of our lives in one culture and the other in another.

<cite class="credit">Photo: Dotun Abeshinbioke / Courtesy of Tolu Oye</cite>
Photo: Dotun Abeshinbioke / Courtesy of Tolu Oye

That sense of in-betweenness was an important theme of this series of portraits, which were photographed on the rooftop of my apartment building and inside my living room. As Nigerian-Americans, we are part of both cultures and incorporate them into our daily lives. But the richness of that identity also causes a double-consciousness. We struggle with not being American enough or Nigerian enough. Exploring and celebrating my heritage is part of why I started our family brand, Oye Green, in 2011. My hope is that it will carry the family legacy and help others preserve their heritage regardless of where they live in the diaspora.

Today is October 1—Nigerian Independence Day. Today I am thinking that no matter where we go and how far we travel, there is just something about that country that sticks with us, that hangs on our clothes like the smell of egusi long after we have left home. Our grandparents found solace in a new land by transforming it into a place of growth and self-discovery. My siblings and I carry the weight of the Oye name, the weight of all that time and effort that our grandparents spent documenting and archiving the growth of our family. We can only hope one day to hold the thick rims of the old photo album and share with our children our family legacy and history. This is what Nigeria means to us, the hard work of one generation and how it transforms the future of another.

<cite class="credit">Photo: Dotun Abeshinbioke / Courtesy of Tolu Oye</cite>
Photo: Dotun Abeshinbioke / Courtesy of Tolu Oye

Read from source Vogue

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