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Delali Ayivi, Togo Yeye
Photographer Delali Ayivi’s utopic portraits are a celebration of Pan-Africanism, inspired by Togolese youth culturePhotography Delali Ayivi

Delali Ayivi’s utopic photos are a celebration of Pan-Africanism

The rising photography star draws on the inspiration of Togolese youth culture to create multifaceted visual stories of global Black communities

While most children were learning their ABCs, Delali Ayivi was being primed to become the artist she is today. “My German grandmother taught me colour and craft studies before I could speak,” she says. “My understanding of colour and composition comes primarily from her. She nurtured my creative side from a young age and is, until today, my best critic.”

Ayivi – born in the US, raised in both Germany, Malawi, and later studied in the UK – harnesses photography to celebrate Pan-Africanism through multifaceted stories of Black communities globally, specifically her Togolese heritage. By applying her grandmother’s lessons in colour and composition, she creates spectacular portraits that hark back to the golden days of the West African photo studio, of which her grandfather, Alex A Acolatse, one of the first photographers in Togo, was a pioneer.

“(He) managed to document his Zeitgeist during multiple colonial occupations,” shares Ayivi. “His photographs are empowering in a way that humanised his people and contradicts the constant discourse of disaster and absence when speaking about west Africa. Acolatse’s work also stands in contrast to the vast number of images from the content that were captured with a voyeuristic, exoticising gaze.”

“I used to think I had to make one big final statement about my work, and about African diasporan or racial identity. This is, of course, an impossible task” – Delali Ayivi

These might seem like big shoes to step into, but Ayivi is already steadily forging her own legacy. At 20 years old, she is a fast-rising photographer shooting covers for German Vogue, landing a spot on this year’s Dazed 100, and winning a top spot in the Photo Vogue 100. “When I was first shown a book about my great-grandfather’s work, I hoped to offer a contemporary vision of his work from my diasporic perspective,” she explains. “I hope my images contrast the singular story that is often told about Togo and its diaspora, but also about Germany and its Black population.”

Although she prefers to shoot in natural light, she translates the trappings of these studios through the hand-painted backdrops she creates with her friend and artistic collaborator Bubby Nurse. “Bubby and I have built a special collaboration throughout uni and afterwards,” she says. “I think we both have a naive approach to our visual language that doesn’t necessarily lean on perfectionism. The physical and emotional labour that goes into our backdrop makes our works extremely personal. We treat each backdrop as a piece of art.”

Beyond this artistic approach, Ayivi approaches image-making like a scientific study. “I draw a socio-political hypothesis that I will then aim to prove or disprove through research – though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to draw a conclusion. This is how I stay curious and open to my surroundings,” she says. “I used to think I had to make one big final statement about my work, and about African diasporan or racial identity. This is, of course, an impossible task.”

More within her reach is pulling from personal narratives, or at least those that are shared but that feel within her proximity. “I would say I can point out common themes of exploration that emerge, [but] the most visually evident narratives are my insights into contemporary Togolese youth culture at home and in the diaspora, creating work that feels empowering and Utopic. Created by us for us.” 

She continues: “Togo isn’t represented much in the African creative discourse, and when we are part of the conversation, it’s a story of stagnancy and helplessness. I have experienced the opposite in the diaspora and [in Togo], especially when it comes to my generation – who is full of hope, Utopic visions, and ideas.”

Last year, Ayivi found a new home in New York City, but the photographer, who lived in Germany until she was 15, admits she hasn’t always felt so at ease in her surroundings. “I always felt quite alienated in Germany,” she says. “[But] Germany has influenced me greatly in my motivation to contribute to a diversified narrative of Black cultures and communities.” 

Ayivi has no intention to dominate or erase certain narratives within Germany or Togo but hopes her work can contribute her own alternative positive perspectives about what it means to be Togolese. “Focusing on positive narratives doesn’t mean that we don’t face our fair share and complexities of issues,” she muses. “But I find that it is exactly those optimistic visuals that end up opening up a safe space to address the difficulties that accompany the good.”

Visit the gallery above for a closer look through Delali Ayivi’s work.

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