La Raffiné, social rituals, and a time to bond: With Nybé Ponzio

Following the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of fasting, the first three days of Shawwal make a time for spiritual reflection and growth. It is also a time when faithful around the world adorn themselves with all forms of glamorous attires, Djabi Da, and ornamented hairstyles. In Mali, the ornaments embedded in their braids once were used to differentiate between a woman, a girl, and a widow. Today, these styles of braids illustrate cultural expression, la raffiné, meaning refinement and sophistication, and an aesthetic that is artistic and also a form of social language between the people of Mali and the world.  It could take hours and even days to create these artful looks, so hairstyling is also an important social ritual, a time to bond with family and friends. Although, Ancient African communities fashioned their hair for more than just-style. Throughout the continent, a person’s hairstyle could tell you a lot about who they were and where they came from. Intricate hairstyles were also historically worn to signify marital status, age, religion, wealth and rank in society. From kings’ ornate beaded caps to braids worn by new mothers, these styles have deep cultural and historical roots. The emotional significance hair has on Black culture and identity is linked to the fact that every woman has her own hair journey story,  often stemming back to childhood. 

Hello Ponzio! and welcome to Random Photo Journal! Briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Nybé Ponzio, I’m a French-Malian photographer. I started photography in 2016 in Paris and I have been living in Bamako for over a year.

What was Eid like in Bamako this year, did you notice any change?

Eid in Mali this year was very nice and everything went well. I mean…like every year, it was a real fashion show in Bamako, with the most beautiful African fabrics and outfits on display in the streets. The main difference this year is that Eid is happening when the country is under an official ban on trade or other commercial activity and as a result, there is price inflation, and some products are becoming scarce or unavailable.

Can you explain your relationship with hair and also talk about what made you decide to start documenting the hair series of Malian women and girls?

Indeed, I have a deep relationship with hair. I believe that hair allows us to characterize ethnicity. Hair is very specific to our identity and the way we style it is a form of expression. Furthermore, African hairstyles have a history. Having grown up in Europe, I was often confronted with discrimination concerning Afro hair. As a result, I decided to fight this discrimination by representing these hairstyles in it is complex beauty, so I could restore Afro hair’s pride. 

You seem like a photographer with a lot of access and connections, how did you gain this photography trust?

I think I’ve gained this photography trust through my various interests (fashion, music, architecture etc…) which are reflected in my photography and through which, I was able to build the network. Travelling is also a very important part of my art, and it opens a lot of doors.

What do you consider a “good image”?

To me, a good image can be different things. Whether it’s a beautiful composition or simply an image with strong storytelling; It can also be aesthetically beautiful or even good image quality.

Are there other African photographers, perhaps Malian photographers to be specific that inspired or inspire some of the works of art that you’ve produced? 

Not really. I am really trying to tell my own story by creating my own art. If I have any inspiration or references, it would be more in terms of career. African photographers such as Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, James Barnor and Kwame Brathwaite have very inspiring careers.

What was your last exhibition about?

My latest exhibition entitled “Aw Bismillah” which means “Welcome” in Bambara is an introduction to Mali, divided into 3 parts which are: the cultural aspect and traditions of the country, the Malian lifestyle and an ode to the Malian nature.

Do you sometimes feel that you photograph Mali in a more culturally unique way that nobody else can manage to do, and if you feel so, can you explain why your style of art is important?

What I can say for certain is that behind my photography hides a lot of research. My sensitivity helps me enormously in my documentation on the subject, which makes my artistic choices impactful. Through my art, I’d qualify myself as a social activist. The most important thing for me is to inform, raise awareness and mental decolonization, and free people’s minds from stereotypes and misconceptions. I use photography as a platform that reaches people and gives a voice to the unheard.