David Uzochukwu brings mythical Black merfolk to life
A photo story five years in the making considers the connection between water and race.
Shot over the course of five years, ‘Mare Monstrum / Drown In My Magic’ channels the power of myth by explicitly visualising Black merfolk. Here, Austrian-Nigerian photographer David Uzochukwu writes an essay for i-D on the process of making it.
This series has been growing since 2016. Water has always played a big role in my work. It can communicate so many different states — I can reflect, float, drown in it. That year, on the Italian coast, I first made self-portraits that played with webbed fingers, finned bodies emerging from waves. I’d use a timer to shoot alone on the beach, and for perspectives from further in the water, I would frame the shot before passing the camera to my mother.
I was elated to visualise the fantastical creatures I’d been fascinated with since I was a child (one of the first fights I remember between my parents circled around my deep wish to get a Barbie mermaid. When I finally had my way, I’d let her dive in the bathtub until her face washed off her pale plastic head.) I didn’t know then that I would build a larger series -- but I kept returning to sketches of merfolk in years that followed. The images begged for a larger scale and a stronger sense of community.
I began to feel like there was a link between this hybrid state of merpeople and Blackness, like water and race were somehow tied together. The images flooding Europe at that moment were those of people, crammed together on dinghies, trying to make it to the shore. Our European myths attached monstrous qualities to their bodies, and their drowning became convenient. For the first time I really understood how the creation of otherness worked.
I would have continued to photograph in the Mediterranean, but through contacts in Dakar, the chance to stage shoots along the Senegalese coast came up. After working up funding for a year, I travelled there in early 2019.
Papa Iceberg -- founder of Amy Management Dakar -- put together a glorious cast and was an intensely motivated model, too. We got up early every day, spending hours in cold water and, after a long break, would shoot until sunset. From fish bought on the beaches of Siné-Saloum, I shot plates for the mermaid fins and tails. Spiky fins and scales felt like symbols of resistance, repelling an outside. They also mark an innate connection to the environment. The potential that the sea holds — one of destruction, as well as one of nourishment and liberty — works in the favour of merfolk. Equipped to survive, they find freedom in the monstrous.
I continued the search for maritime stock images in the public aquarium back home in Berlin. Putting the pictures together, I realised I wasn’t done — some hadn’t worked out how I wanted to, other’s we’d pushed back or replaced by more spontaneous ideas. I also liked the idea of creating an European pendant. In December 2019, Dominique Booker -- a friend, photographer and casting agent -- curated a second, beautiful cast to populate minimal sets we had built in a studio with Karen Betzler.
In post production, the images from Italy, Senegal, Germany collided, interweaved with plates previously shot in Thailand, Chile. MARE MONSTRUM references Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea, and the fact that emerging from them seems to somehow strip people of their humanity. DROWN IN MY MAGIC is a more self-centring take — all about recognising one’s own power. It aims to draw up new links between Black bodies and their environment, to encourage thinking about futures, parallel worlds, fantasies with them in it. I want these photographs to lay the foundation for an eight-year-old me to dream of diving through coral reefs.
‘David Uzochukwu Mare Monstrum / Drown In My Magic’ is viewable on Artsy in collaboration with Galerie Number 8 now.
All images courtesy David Uzochukwu
- david uzochukwu