Kemka Ajoku’s new series captures migration and settlement of Black people in the UK after the Windrush era
A photographer of fashion and portraiture, Kemka Ajoku – who’s born and raised in London – strives to rewrite the stories of Black British culture. Done so through a mix of personal projects and commissions, Kemka has documented all sorts of meaningful tales from the locals of Lagos, busy in the tasks of their everyday jobs, and the beauty of brotherhood in the post-adolescent stage of life. Each picture he takes reverberates with purpose and passion; he’s a storyteller of truth, and someone who employs visual art as a tool for spreading his messages.
Over the last year, which has been a difficult one for many, if not all, Kemka has managed to find a sense of fulfilment. Not only did he graduate at the end of 2020 form a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he also arrived back home and broke away from the educational system for the first time in his life. “I felt free to creatively understand more about who I am,” he tells me, “looking back at my lineage as a guide to learning more about myself, having never given myself the space or time to truly be introspective.”
A period of self-awareness and contemplation, Kemka’s ventures out into the ‘real world’ arose alongside the arrival of the pandemic. Coupled with the increase in racist hate crimes and injustice the globe, he began to question his role as a photographer, “a Black British photographer for that matter.” A sense of responsibility emerged: “a need to document the life of my people both in Nigeria and the diaspora,” he says. “To me, this was more important than taking a pretty photo. And so, a paradigm shift took place within me, a shift which led to me working with more intentionality, giving more meaning to the work with the hopes of lasting the test of time.”
This matured sensibility has manifested into his latest photo series, titled Finding Common Ground. Months in the making, the body of work is currently exhibiting at Wrest Park as part of the England’s New Lenses project with Photoworks, in partnership with English Heritage’s Shout Out Loud programme. In comparison to his previous series – although motivated in their own right – Kemka has never worked with such drive and ethos. “I sat down and really articulated what I wanted to achieve before picking up my camera.” A lengthy bout of research and exploration later, he came to learn more about the migration and settlement of Black people in the UK after the Windrush era, “a story that me, my parents, and their parents are part of.”
The photos involved are therefore contemplative, powerful and historical. Shot in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, the location protrudes with British heritage as it’s built atop the style of an 18th Century French Chateau. He cast a selection of his friends to sit for him, each representing a specific demographic within the Black British community. Referred to as “characters”, Kemka explains how each of his models’ personas have been developed from “watching British Blaxploitation films from the 70s and 80s; films such as Black Joy, Babylon Burning an Illusion and Pressure to name a few.” To accentuate this, Kemka worked with stylists Daniel Obaweya, Charles Ndoimu and Lingani Noah who assisted with adorning the models in Black British clothing lines from both young and more established labels.
“The styling for this project was broken into two parts, highlighting two generations of Black British citizens,” adds Kemka, “from the tailored style of the late 40s and early 50s, to the more relaxed and youthful looks of the 70s and 80s. Fashion is an important part of British culture, used in a way to express identity with the community one associates themselves with. Many fashion nuances migrated from foreign land have interwoven with British styling over recent years, and this integration of style was a focal point in styling the models.”
Observing the completed works and you’ll notice how the poses or gestures appear to have been caught in a freeze frame – recording not only that moment in time, but also an experience and learning exuded from the photographer who’s captured them. “The intention with this work is to artistically depict an important era in Black British history (not in a common documentary photography fashion) that will have longevity long after I’m around,” he concludes. “Thinking back to my intentions as a photographer, one thing I revert to is the legacy my work will have for other Black British creatives, looking for a reference upon which to build their creative career upon.”
Photographer: Kemka Ajoku
Assistant Photographer: Anu Akande
Talent: Kozy, Ore Ajala, Amidu Kebbie, Chieloka Uzokwe, Tami Bolu, Feranmi Eso
Hair: Shamara Roper
Styling Team: Daniel Obaweya, Charles Ndiomu, Lingani Noah
Special Thanks: Mahtab Hussain, Ingrid Pollard
And special thanks to Photoworks and English Heritage for giving me the opportunity to create this body of work through their ‘England’s New Lenses’ project