What If? Stephen Tayo

Lagos-based photographer Stephen Tayo is known for his layered work, which seeks to communicate the complexity of humanity and the human experience as revealed in the world around him. His intimate works capture the sartorial flair of his sitters, honing in on clothing, accessories and styling as outward expressions of identity.

Tayo's What If? series was a product of his 2020 residency at the Arthouse Foundation. He collaborated with a group of self-professed drag artists in Lagos, exploring the question 'What if our society didn't ostracise queer identities?'.

Here, Tayo discusses his series What If? in more detail:

"In March 2020, the world went into lockdown in response to a global pandemic. Or at least the global north went into lockdown, in my home country Nigeria, things were not that straightforward.

"As a documentary photographer and visual artist who works in socially and politically disadvantaged communities, I experienced first-hand how classist many government policies are and how these policies are disproportionately harmful to at-risk communities. Far too many people who rely on a living wage fell through the cracks of Nigeria's health response and put themselves in harm's way to survive.

colour collage photograph of three drag artists with faces obscured on yellow background
Na Lagos we Dey 2, from the series What If?, by Stephen Tayo, 2020, Lagos, Nigeria. Courtesy of Stephen Tayo

"The rest of us turned to the internet for entertainment and reassurance that the uncertainty would pass, a place that was already a refuge for Nigeria's drag artists who, at the intersection of many disadvantaged groups, have responded to every challenge with inventiveness and resilience. I sought to collaborate with them, to understand their struggle for visibility, for equity and justice.

"Fashion holds more than aesthetic value for Nigerians. Anyone who has attended a Nigerian gathering understands that dressing can be used to show solidarity, telegraph status, and make a public statement. Gender performance is one of the most prominent uses of dress, and the rules we follow today are perversions of a more fluid precolonial history. I sought advice and guidance from veteran journalist and academic Funmi Iyanda, whose knowledge of Yorùbá cosmology, history and evolution is unrivalled among her peers. Ms Iyanda's insights on the ways gender was expressed in pre-colonial Yorùbá culture and how those negotiations have been warped by contact with the West were instrumental in my choice of subject matter and my decision to present my subjects free of political subtext and shown as they want to be perceived.

Colour collage photograph of drag artists with faces obscured on pale green/blue background
Na Lagos we Dey 3, from the series What If?, by Stephen Tayo, 2020, Lagos, Nigeria. Courtesy of Stephen Tayo

"Drag is the intersection of fashion and activism, a celebration of identity in the face of public scrutiny by a group of people whose existence is actively erased. What If? explores how self-professed drag artists leverage the visibility of social media to build digital followings for themselves and challenge social expectations of gender performance.

"Performing in drag is protest. Every aspect of a drag identity and public persona is staged to fool the eye and confuse the senses, to break conformity and offer a deliberately elevated narrative about self. In many ways, this bears similarities to the practice of Egun, the Yorùbá masquerade, a genderless expression of divinity that serves as a physical representation of the Òrìṣà, who cannot be limited by gender binaries and operate within rules of fairness and equity. Artists like Twin-Seven Seven and Alhaji Abass Obesere serve as forebears to contemporary drag artists, because their fluid expressions were understood to be performance rather than identity. This multi-generational spirit of performance as protest is what I seek to capture with this body of work.

Colour collage photograph of drag artist with hat obscuring face on patterned tan background
Na Lagos we Dey 4, from the series What If?, by Stephen Tayo, 2020, Lagos, Nigeria. Courtesy of Stephen Tayo

"Working with drag artists breaks all the rules of documentary photography. Where in documentary photography, a candid subject is prized above all else, a drag artist must spend hours getting into character and her very existence in drag presents a falsehood to the audience, one that is acknowledged by the photographer and the audience for the photograph to be truly enjoyed. Drag artists always have something to say and use their visibility to highlight social issues.

"The photographs I have captured might feature LGBT persons, but the series is not a treatise on sexuality. I have photographed artists in spaces where they feel at ease and given them creative freedom to pose themselves as they feel is best representative of their drag. My only input to the finished photography is staging through photo manipulation and collage.

"This body of work is a celebration of the power of self-representation and self-advocacy, it is a subversion of the tenets of documentary photography and an exploration of performance as protest, especially for demographics that are traditionally silenced because of their age, gender, sexuality or identity."

Header image: Na Lagos we Dey 1, from the series What If?, by Stephen Tayo, 2020, Lagos, Nigeria. Courtesy of Stephen Tayo