Last year, documentary photographer Yagazie Emezi left Nigeria and moved to Liberia, exchanging the chaos of Lagos for the persistent rain of Monrovia. “It’s the wettest capital in the world,” she says, and videos taken from her rooftop show just that—a gray sky stretched over the ocean, the patter of water as a constant soundtrack. It was unsurprising, then, that?Yagazie’s first visit to West Point, a township 10 minutes away from her house by tricycle taxi, would be accompanied by a light drizzle. With an estimated 75,000 residents, West Point is the largest slum in Monrovia, and its position along the Atlantic, combined with rising water levels and illegal practices like sand mining, has made it susceptible to significant coastal erosion. During her visit,?Yagazie walked through a part of the township that the ocean had reclaimed—where houses had been lost, eaten up by the water.
“I saw this woman who was sitting down in a half-knocked-down shack,” she recalls. “She was wearing a pink spaghetti tube top with blue braids. Green lipstick, red eyeshadow.” The description is striking, easy to imagine: the woman sitting behind a veil of slight water, her body adorned in powder and oil-based pigment, stitched fabric and synthetic extensions. “I wanted to photograph her,”?Yagazie says. “That visual was what drew me into West Point.”
Through her work with a local NGO,?Yagazie spent the next several months interacting with women and girls in the township, encountering an intriguing new set of aesthetic principles. “We see a gold dress and we think, How will this look on my body?” she says. “They see a gold dress and they think, This is a beautiful color; I want to wear it. It’s the same thing with makeup.”
The principle is simple but radical—wearing what you like simply because you like it, replacing the outward gaze with something more personal and intuitive. And while the women of West Point are not entirely immune to the influence of global beauty standards that have turned skin lightening or hair straightening into powerful local industries, they also find freedom in exploring the boundaries of an extreme makeup palette or dye job. Within this, small gestures like brushing on a shocking blue eyeshadow, affixing nail art to a vibrant manicure, or sweeping a violet glaze through dark braids transform the concept of beauty from what is flattering to what is delightful. Likewise, “there is a well-established body positive standard,” explains?Yagazie of how comfortable the women are with their various sizes and shapes.
Yagazie’s subjects, photographed over recent months, demonstrate just what can happen when bright colors, body-hugging prints, and confidence meet in one’s choices. The resulting images are a record of that reclamation—and a bold declaration of self.