Spotlight: Kampala Urban Mystery Is Challenging Ugandan Gender Norms Through Photography

Spotlight: Kampala Urban Mystery Is Challenging Ugandan Gender Norms Through Photography
Image courtesy of Kampala Urban Mystery via Wilow Diallo

The photo series comes straight from the East African capital to celebrate the robustness and empowerment of taboos.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.

In our latest piece, we spotlight Ugandan photo series, Kampala Urban Mystery. The project is dedicated to challenging Ugandan society's reputation for being strict, rigid, and often inhumane when it comes to sexual expression and identity. The East African nation has more to offer and fashion and photography and making their way center stage. Creative director Wilow Dialo says of the project, "I explored the different forms of masculinity and femininity; highlighting the polarity of strength and vulnerability. Portraying and celebrating the robustness, unconventionality, and empowerment of taboos. Furthermore, I wanted to illustrate the power of creativity and explore the limits of Ugandan society without conceding the dark sides of a society undergoing major change." Shot in Uganda's capital Kampala, the Kampala Urban Mystery photo series births and ads shine to the beauty and potential bursting out of Ugandan slums while pushing the man-made boundaries surrounding gender and gender expression. The project comes from fashion designers Gloria Wavamunno,Ibrahim Kasoma, Godfrey Katende, Abbas Kaijuka, and Cecily Ophelia. Model agent Joram Muzira, photographers Michelle Isinbaeva and Kibuuka Mukisa. With makeup artistry provided by Danyel Otim, and Jorge Kizzy.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your background as an artist and the journey you've taken to get it to where it is today.

I've had a passion for fashion for as long as I can remember. I started off in retail and grew rather quickly, and I really got a holistic perspective of the industry. I lived in Germany and Switzerland for a few years, and then I returned to Paris to do a Master's Degree in Luxury Marketing and international Brand Management. After that, I worked in the showrooms of several luxury fashion houses. But, through all that time and over the years, I started dreaming about doing my own thing. I wanted to be self-employed, but above all else, I wanted to transpose my creativity and style of work into the industry. So, as of the end of 2019, I quit my job as a brand manager and took the leap of faith, and created my own production studio - an accomplishment I'm super proud of.

What are the central themes in your work and how have you told the story this time around?

I see it as a game of colors and textures, a kind of collision between several opposing aspects. I love giving myself the freedom to explore any and everything. I don't go in with specific ideas when I create, I go where inspiration takes it - it's more abstract. With each new project, I try to imagine a newer version of myself - a character who would present themselves differently every time. I really value playing with societal codes, and I refuse to abide by conformism. As long as we're respecting each other's space, it makes no sense for society to impose certain rules on us.

How are you using fashion and photography to translate African stories to a global market?

On one hand, there is no doubt in my mind that Africa will join the global fashion market. We have a young, dynamic, and creative population growing in confidence, and the global market is really starting to see Africa as a great investment - as they did with China in the 1970s. There's no doubt.

On the other hand, it's incredibly important for African stories and cultures to not get lost while integrating into the global market. Too often, we see how much destruction and impact global markets have across the continent. Too many foreign markets have depleted resources from Africans and left them nothing in return.

Storytelling is and has been for the history of the world, the most effective form of communication, and with my work, I want to embed African stories into the global markets. This need not be an "African" story, but should rather reflect the diversity Africa has to offer. Rather than seeing the 55 countries of Africa as a fragmented market, we hope global markets can experience hundreds of creative offshoots from the 1.2 billion people with the longest existing cultures known to earth. My job is to tell these stories - celebrate their narrative with luxury brands, without any loss of value or nod to assimilation.

Can you talk about your use of colors and jewelry in this project?

The colors speak for themselves in this project. While we worked in the "slums" of Kampala, the colors we used really reflected the energy that occupied the space with emerging confidence. For this project, it was important for me to work with local actors, and to be honest, it was not very difficult to select the designer. I'm always so impressed by the quality of the work that the new generation of designers produces. Names like Gloria Wavamunno (founder Kampala of Fashion Week), Ibrahim Kasoma, and Godfrey Katende (IGC Fashion), Abbas Kaijuka (Kai's Divo Collection) come up - among others. Gloria created one of the flagship accessories of this project, the "power shell durag" (headpiece). She uses local materials and revisits the codes of Western fashion in her own way.

Image courtesy of Kampala Urban Mystery via Wilow Diallo