William Ukoh Photographs a Black Renaissance

The 29-year-old, who once dreamed of becoming the first black person to shoot a ‘Vogue’ cover, has big plans.
August 14, 2018, 1:03pm
All photos by William Ukoh

The 29-year-old photographer William Ukoh, who, on the internet, is more commonly known as @willyverse, grew up in a small apartment on the mainland stretch of Lagos, Nigeria, where he dug holes in the dirt and watched his mother collect art. She had a particular taste for sculptures and traditional masks—the kind Pablo Picasso loved and predicated an entire ethnological period on, back when he was making proto-Cubist works such as “Femme Nue” and “Seated Woman.” Ukoh recalls how he would stare at these masks, which hung against the walls as inanimate sentinels, wondering if, as in the American movies, his body would transform upon placing one to his face.


What Ukoh remembers more than anything else, though, is a massive print of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Virgin and the Child” (the real one hangs in the Louvre, in Paris), which swayed in his kitchen, just above his freezer, and became a frequent visiting spot where he would spend time marvelling at the colours and the details of the painting. Decades and many cameras later, Ukoh now understands this fascination, in part, as a juvenile interrogation of how black people were rarely depicted in the canon of Renaissance art and the general league of religious imagery.

We sat down—literally, we sat in a shady part of Trinity Bellwoods—with the photographer to talk about his work, his childhood, and the future of black photography.

VICE: When did you start taking photos?
William Ukoh: I actually can’t remember the exact timeline now, as far as when exactly I started taking photos. I’m just going to say it was probably five-ish years ago. My sister took a course at U of T (University of Toronto), like a digital media course or something, and they required her to use a DSLR. So, she brought the camera home. I played around with it, loved it and was like, “I have to get one for myself.” After that, I started taking pictures on my own, with a Sony Alpha 350—this bulky DSLR thing. I think initially it was just interesting to be able to tell stories. I was always interested in telling stories, but I was studying computer science at McMaster at the time, so as far as creativity goes, there was none. So having the camera was interesting because I was able to explore that side for the first time.


You were born in Nigeria and you didn’t move here, to Toronto, until you were 17 years old. Tell me what it was like growing up there and how it has informed, or continues to inform your photography.
I spent the later years, from when I was 11 to when I was 17, in boarding school. I came home from time to time, but most of my years were spent in boarding school during that period. It was called Olashore. I lived in the main city in Nigeria, called Lagos, and Olashore was like four hours away. That time definitely informed what I do now, in terms of how I view things, how I interpret things. A couple of series ago, I did this one called Okobo, which was about my grandparents, and the styling was all because of my ancestry and experiences [in Nigeria].

Is it important for you to always use black models?
It really just goes back to telling stories that I can relate to. When I finally decided to do fashion photography, I noticed that most of the faces you see are white models and after a while, consciously or unconsciously, I just gravitated toward black models. Which isn’t to say I’m never going to shoot a white model—it’s just that every time I’m telling a story, from a personal experience, I feel a black model would represent that story best. When I’m doing fashion look books or campaigns, that is totally in the hands of the client. I can’t control what other people’s stories are, and I’m very willing to shoot those because it’s an opportunity to grow and to learn about other people’s experiences. But as far as my own stories, it should be someone who looks like me.


One thing I noticed, and wanted to talk to you about, was what seems like a heavy influence of the High Renaissance art period. I can see where you were inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera in Flock T, or Titian’s colour and portraiture in Okobo, and some of the symmetry and softness da Vinci was always fascinated by.
I think it started when I began my film journey—I had to take art history and all that stuff. Or maybe it was slightly before then, which might have guided me to take art history in the first place. I just felt like there was something about Renaissance paintings, like that was the height of composition, colour, and lighting. I always just looked to those as the ultimate form of visual expression as it relates to composition and lighting. Even the styling—I think that definitely comes from the Renaissance. I didn’t grow up conscious about fashion and styling and all that stuff. So my work up until now has been very much based on feeling, and responding to things that make me feel something. So for a while, it was just about the Renaissance paintings—just the way the fabrics were draped and how, I felt, that brought life to the pictures in some way.

Right. But the whole theme of Renaissance painting, aside from perfecting the aspects of the pictorial art, like lighting and perspective and anatomy, was painting these classical scenes and mythological deities. Because we’re talking about late 15th to early 16th century Italy here. So the people they were painting, obviously, were all white. But you’re bringing your own self-exploration into it, which complicates that inspiration.
I think that all started with this project I did, where I felt like all the paintings I was seeing in art history were white. So I consciously decided to use a black model to mimic some of the paintings that I really liked. But I mean, if you look at someone like Picasso, he got so much inspiration for his Cubism in Nigeria and the sculptures of that time. But when that was taught to me in art history, it was sort of like, “Picasso, Picasso, Picasso,” then a very little section that was like, “Oh, Picasso got this from Nigeria,” then brush past that, and “Picasso, Picasso, Picasso.” But it’s not necessarily about where the artist got their inspiration from or who the artist was inspired by. I think it’s just about proper representation and proper credit.


So what were the first photos that you took then? I mean, when you actually decided you were going to make photography happen for yourself, what did you start photographing?
I think it was just my friends and my sister. I was just teaching myself about blurring the background and keeping the foreground in focus. I embarrassingly named my first Facebook album “Focus and Blur.” Then after that, I moved more into documentary-style photography. I remember, eight years ago, there was this riot on Queen West, near Queen and Peter Street or Queen and John Street, during the G20 protests. I just felt compelled to go there and capture all the craziness that was happening, like burning police cars. I don’t think I would do that now, but at the time I just got a rush from documentary photography. Then I slowly moved into portraits and then fashion.

You seem to be really interested in symmetry and colour, which are huge factors in those famously serene High Renaissance paintings by guys like Titian and da Vinci and Giorgione.
Yeah. The symmetry thing—I like all my things to be arranged perfectly, in symmetry, which naturally carried into my work. Especially with Instagram, which is all about grids, it was very easy to explore that. As far as colour, I felt like I had this moment where I was just exposed to colour in a new way. I was away from Nigeria for a while, and when I had started taking photos, I was very into black and white photography. I thought everything looked good in black and white. So in 2014, I went back to Nigeria and the trip was just mind-blowing. It was my first time back in a while—certainly my first time as a photographer. So I was just seeing colour in a whole new way. When I came back, it was more about trying to recreate the feeling I had when I was there. And because Toronto all of a sudden looked grey to me, my work evolved into replacing that background and producing other colour combinations.


That makes sense, because it doesn’t seem like your photos were taken here at all. You would never know, just by looking at them, that they were taken in Toronto. Which is why I was interested in how Nigeria, specifically, plays a role in your work on a larger scale. You shoot against the sky quite a bit, with a setting or rising sun backdrop, which is often obscured in the city by office buildings and condos.
I don’t know, man. The sky is the greatest backdrop ever—the sky and water. I think that has to do with the Renaissance thing, too, in a way. For a period, I was just fascinated with water, and open space in general. My goal is definitely to just have a large plot of land and build a nice, one-level house. I feel like space allows you to have perspective. There was a period where I was very into the minimalism part of photography, so all my pictures were framed in the bottom third of the image, but now I try to create space in other ways, even on social media. Every time I think my Instagram is feeling cluttered, I try to pick lighter colours—maybe blue, or something—and post pictures of open spaces. This is when I was really attached to my Instagram. I used to just sit, look up, and just watch clouds go by.

Is freedom an important theme in your work?
I feel like freedom is just a state that I’m always chasing. So if, on set, I can achieve some sense of calm, some sense of freedom, and create an environment where everyone feels free to express themselves, then that alone is satisfaction. I know there was a period where just showing freedom was really big for me. In Nigeria, we can’t do what we’re doing right now—you can’t just sit in an open park. You don’t get to just sit outside and relax. Which is sad, because there’s so much nature and empty landscapes just sitting there. I think a lot of that has to do with the pollution. If there’s an empty plot of land, you can bet it’s going to be waterlogged, or filled with garbage, or it’s being used as a dumping site for plastics, so it’s not encouraging to just exist outside.

Something that I wanted to talk to you about was this Tyler Mitchell Vogue cover. Last week, this 23-year-old kid became the first black photographer to shoot the cover in Vogue ’s 126-year history. I wanted to hear what this moment means to you, as a black photographer.
I’ve done interviews in the past couple years where I said—and anyone who ever asked me would know—that I wanted to be the first black photographer to shoot Vogue. So when I saw that, I was like, “Whoa, I need to figure out my goals again.” But another part of me just thought how ridiculously amazing that was. It just proved everything to me. When I used to tell people I wanted to be the first black photographer to do that, to shoot Vogue, it was always sort of like, “Oh, you need to get to this level, you need to be 40 or 50 years old.” In retrospect, if I had more confidence in myself, I probably wouldn’t have let those thoughts get to me. Because Tyler is, what, 23 and unsigned? It just reaffirmed everything I believed in when I started, and gave me a lot more confidence in what I’m doing right now. To see this images gave me a new sense of confidence, that these images are possible. Because at the time, you would think you had to take a certain sort of image for Vogue, like what Mario Testino takes. Starting out, I sometimes tried to take photos like those photographers. In the end, I always felt I had to do what was right for me. So to see that was just reaffirming to what I’m trying to do.

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