Come and see beauty in Chin We’s Nigerian portraits at Fossgate and Micklegate Social

Photographer Chin We at the launch of her Ife Nkili exhibition of Nigerian portraiture, running at Micklegate Social and Fossgate Social, York. Pictures: Mike Stubbs

PHOTOGRAPHY and dance artist Chin We is the first beneficiary of Foto/Grafic At The Social, a new bi-monthly, dual-venue initiative for emerging talent in York.

 “At Fossgate Social, we’ve been supporting local artists for five years with monthly exhibitions, but we’d like to up our game and include our sister venue, the Micklegate Social,” says bar owner, general manager and urban designer Sarah Lakin.

 “To this end, we’re developing a programme of exhibitions of original artwork for display and sale.”

 Explaining her reasoning, Sarah says: “We live in a society drenched in imagery, but where can we find social spaces to connect and discuss what images are relevant and why?

Two of Chin We’s Nigerian portraits at Micklegate Social, York

 “There is no dedicated photographic gallery in York since Impressions moved to Bradford in 2007, but we hope to plug that gap with artwork that is strong and meaningful covering graphics, photography, print and electronic art.”

Noting how Micklegate is at present playing host to Chin We’s photos at Micklegate Social, Lesley Birch’s Marks & Moments at Partisan and Jonny Hannah’s Songs For Darktown Lovers at FortyFive Vinyl Café, Sarah continues: “As York develops its contemporary visual art scene, the Social hopes to feed that cultural ecology, helping to raise the bar – pun  intended – and encourage cutting-edge contemporary work that explores new narratives, forms and politics.”

First into the spotlight is Chin We, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, who was born in Manchester and spent her formative years in Nsukka, eastern Nigeria, and her adolescence in London, where she started her photography through a lifestyle blog.

I found a creative outlet to share candid conversations on pop culture, art, fashion, travel, food, sex and lifestyle,” she says. “As the photography requests and referrals grew, I knew straightaway that my passion was photography. That was when I learnt that documentary photography was my calling and leapt fully into documentary photography in January 2018.”

The launch night of Chin We’s exhibition at Micklegate Social

Chin We is “fascinated by portraiture, capturing people’s essence and visual storytelling”, leading to her work exploring themes of identity, culture, representation and heritage.

At Fossgate Social and Micklegate Social, this is represented by her Ife Nkili photographs, Ife Nkili being a phrase from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria that means “Come and see; come and see beauty”. 

 Her series of portraits was captured during Chin We’s journey through Nigeria in West Africa; they speak to ideas of representation and identity through their unequivocal depiction of her sitters, spanning northern, south-western and south-eastern Nigeria.

Chin We’s photographic style is described as “direct, raw and unique in its all-embracing sweep, from different walks of life and social circles” as she documents her fellow men and women.

One of Chin We’s Nigerian portraits

“Some live as Christians, others are Muslims or pagans; some are urban socialites, others provincial farmers, traders, warriors and local chiefs,” says her exhibition briefing. “And, of course, there are queens and kings. These compelling portraits betray intimate expressions and tender exchanges. They invariably bring us closer to this diverse culture through their visual storytelling.” 

Chin We’s photography has been published widely and she was featured on CNN as a leading African woman photographer to follow. She was nominated for RPS 100 Heroines by the Royal Photographic Society and won an honourable mention award in the People-Portrait Category in the 2018 International Photography Awards. 

Later this year, the British Museum, in London, will present her new exhibition celebrating the presence of Nigerians in the UK, marking 60 years of Nigerian independence from Great Britain.

 Welcoming Chin We to York, Sarah says: “Still in her twenties, she is a young woman to watch and we’re privileged she has agreed to exhibit with us.

“Her black-and-white photographic portraiture is strong and meaningful; the portraits are direct and challenging, covering topics such as religion, class, work and child brides.

“Through presenting the work of Chin We, we want to increase the diversity of artists’ work, locally and further afield, and provide what we can for arts to gain greater exposure and engagement in a social setting.”

Chin We’s Ife Nkili exhibition runs at Micklegate Social, Micklegate, and Fossgate Social, Fossgate, York, until March 31.