Unity Is Strength

Inside Kenzo’s creative project championing Nigerian culture, beauty and youth
By Naomi May | Art | 27 April 2017
Photography Ruth Ossai

‘Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze’ for Kenzo Folio #1. Photography Ruth Ossai, fashion Ibrahim Kamara.

When designer Kenzō Takada launched his namesake brand in Paris in the early 1970s, what stood him out (aside from his incredibly colourful prints) was his globally-fuelled approach to fashion. Reconciling his own Japanese heritage with the culture of his adopted city, his vibrant designs spotlighted the ceremonial nature of fashion, the beauty in getting dressed. So when Kenzo recently commissioned UK-based Nigerian curator and filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. to conceive a project around the notion of ‘ceremony’, it made sense. 

Titled ‘Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze’ (an Igbo proverb meaning ‘Unity is Strength’) the project saw Davies Jr. team up with fellow Nigerian photographer Ruth Ossai, and stylist Ibrahim Kamara, to reframe the Kenzo SS17 collection in a cultural context that resonated with them. Journeying to Ossai’s own village, Nsukka, they created a beauty pageant inspired visual exploration of the indigenous Igbo communities of southern Nigeria – realised as a film and photo series.

“It’s about celebrating young black Nigerian bodies and capturing them celebrating Igbo culture and traditions, showing that beauty is always present when there is a commitment to the celebration of culture,” explained Davies Jr., interviewed here. 

Gallery: 'Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze' for Kenzo Folio


The images feature in the first edition of Kenzo Folio, a new quarterly publication showcasing the brand’s collections through the eyes of young creatives. They are also the subject of a new exhibition taking over the Kenzo London flagship from today, aligned with the accompanying film, which you can watch below. To celebrate the project, here Davies Jr. reflects on the inspiration behind the concept, and challenging the notion of “normative beauty.”

Naomi May: So how did your collaboration with Kenzo arise? 
Akinola Davies Jr: I was approached by Partel Oliva, the Kenzo image directors about potentially shooting an editorial and I jumped at the chance as I loved the body of work Kenzo puts out. They had seen a couple of music videos I’d done – namely Marks of Worship for the artist Klein and Lion Warrior for another artist called Farai. Kenzo indicated that the project needed to be equally video and photography so I reached out to Ruth and was overwhelmed when she agreed to be a part of it.

Naomi: When deciding on the best way to showcase the notion of ‘ceremony’, what was it that inspired you to showcase the Nsukka population?
Akinola: The initial idea was to do a beauty pageant with a close community of friends. We’d been very interested in identifying beauty as something that can’t be identified by an algorithm, but rather a sum of all the parts specifically within the context of Nigeria and Africa.

As Africans we are very conscious of who is at the forefront of owning our stories past, present and future. It was important to us that we should claim that space and further the reimagining of the our narratives.

“As Africans we are very conscious of who is at the forefront of owning our stories past, present and future.”

Ruth and I being both Nigerian insisted on taking this home and shoot a community aside from those of huge metropolitan states of Lagos and Abuja which tend monopolise a lot of the general culture. Nsukka has a very rich history and Ruth being from that part of the country encouraged that we could go and shoot in a community she is familiar with. 


Naomi: The models were cast from the schools, churches and markets of Nsukka, Ossai’s own village. Can you talk me through the casting process for the project? Was there any reluctance from locals, and how did you go about conducting the search for who would star in the project?
Akinola: We’d gone out to Nsukka a week before the crew arrived and told the local community what we intended to do, which involved looking at a lot of surprised-looking faces. Everyone there was very familiar with Ruth and her work, and I mean literally everyone. They loved the idea of using the youth for an idea that celebrated the beauty and strength of the community.

We both have pretty strong sense of what charisma translates to on camera, in terms of what we wanted that helped us identified people straight away. In order to get a more rounded view we invited as many people to a casting and ended up with about 100+ people turning up. It was quite overwhelming especially having to say no to a lot of people. 

We didn’t meet any reluctance because we’d gone through the right means of informing community elders, the local church, the local headmaster and people in the market place. Having to do this also lent itself to scouting locations, meeting local hairdressers, seeing how people styled themselves and how they travelled. 

‘Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze’ for Kenzo Folio #1. Photography Ruth Ossai, fashion Ibrahim Kamara.

“They loved the idea of using the youth for an idea which celebrated the beauty and strength of the community.”

‘Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze’ for Kenzo Folio #1. Photography Ruth Ossai, fashion Ibrahim Kamara.

Naomi: “Gidi Gidi Bu Ugwu Eze” means “Unity is strength”. How do your images, to you, depict unity and strength?
Akinola: I think for me an opportunity to reclaim motifs and silhouettes in a manner in which incorporates the people within them is strength and unity. This gives those involved a sense of ownership, understanding their own agency and power. The pay off for me lies within seeing the people of Nsukka being happy to be part of it and see themselves as beautiful and able to dictate that by celebrating themselves. 

Naomi: What was the key message that you wanted to portray through the images you captured?
Akinola: I think the whole project aims to challenge “normative beauty ” wherever that exists and that culture doesn’t define people. People aren’t rigid and one dimensional, they in fact constantly redefine what both culture and beauty are. In this instance the Nigerian, African experience; we had a chance to conceptually portray the dynamism we both see within a particular nuanced community. It allowed us to reinterpret our own gaze, away from the repetitive “normative narrative”. 

‘Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze’ runs from today, 27th April–10th May at Kenzo London, 31 Bruton St, Mayfair W1J 6HH. As well as above, the accompanying film by Akinola Davies Jr. is now available to watch at www.kenzo.com


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