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African beauties, Japan's beauty

Photographer Mariko Itagaki says she has a great affinity for Africa, and African women in particular. She says they seem to embody the energy of life. “Yet, I also find a sense of warmth or repose in them, similar to something we have had in Japan since ancient times,” Itagaki says.

This is why Itagaki, who has been capturing images of women and of Africa itself since a visit to Nigeria in 1984, is going to show her photos of women taken in West Africa and in Japan from Monday at Canon Gallery in Shinagawa, Tokyo. In African Beauty, the veteran photographer will show the beauty of African women, which remains resilient no matter what the setting.

“I used to just ask women who impressed me while walking down the streets of West Africa if I could take their photo. Without any particular setting, I photographed them on the spot to capture them in a natural situation,” Itagaki tells The Daily Yomiuri, recalling her first 15 years of photographing the women. “It wasn’t until 1998 that I started to direct the photographs, deciding where we would shoot and what they would wear.”

But Itagaki continued to scout women on the street. “As soon as I get their consent, I visit them to select the traditional clothing they will wear for the shoot and then I go location hunting. So there was a lot of time and effort that went into one photo compared to what I had been doing.

“But I wanted to show them in a more fashionable way–not in a fashion brand-driven way, but reflecting their attitude about adorning themselves by cleverly using what is available to them,” Itagaki says with a smile as she swings a necklace she bought in Mali.

Having taken such images for nearly 10 years, Itagaki decided last year to add a twist to her work: She spent a whole year documenting African women living in Japan. As in her previous work, they were clad in traditional clothing at various locations throughout the country.

“I thought it would be interesting to capture them with things that appear irreconcilable, such as old farmhouses or gilded folding screens. These combinations may appear incongruous, but I felt they would make a great match,” she says.

In one photograph on display in African Beauty, a Nigerian woman in a bright green dress and matching head wrap smiles as she holds a slice of succulent watermelon in her hands, sitting alongside an old Japanese woman with a hand towel wrapped around her head–a typical headdress for Japanese farm women–in front of a rustic old farmhouse. The subdued white color given off by the rice-paper doors create harmony with the red and green of the photo.

Itagaki explains that the charm of such vivid colors can be lost if they are paired with something too Japanese. “Striking a balance between them was the most difficult part of making this great ‘mismatch.'”

As African women are the central theme of her work, Itagaki adds, it was important to always portray them in a lively way. “I want to show they have a certain energy no matter where they are.”

While Itagaki says she finds contrasting elements between the images of Africans and Japan, she says she also has found something similar: “I think the warmth of the people I found in Africa is somehow like that of Japan.”

In a series she has nicknamed the “Respect Rice” series–a set of three photographs taken on the theme of rice–there is a picture depicting three Nigerian women standing beside a rice paddy. Clad in red, white and other colors, the women stand out against the familiar Japanese countryside, yet manage to also evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Another picture captures the three dancing in front of golden stalks of rice being placed in the sun to dry. The final picture shows them eating rice balls beneath an autumn-blooming cherry tree.

Elsewhere, there is a particularly impressive closeup shot of a Nigerian holding a noh mask on a dune in Shizuoka Prefecture. White is repeated throughout the photo, with the whites of her robe, mask and the surrounding sand offering complimentary tones.

Many African women living here, Itagaki explains, are from Nigeria, which is why so many Nigerians appear in her photographs. However, the photographer has also shot women from Senegal, Ethiopia, Djibouti, South Africa and Cameroon.

“Why do I take their pictures? Maybe it’s somehow a reflection of myself,” Itagaki says. “I think I also have a kind of yearning for African women or their strong sense of life. A person who saw my photographs told me the women looked like they had their backs completely straight. I think that expression best describes their hopeful attitude.”

After Tokyo, African Beauty will travel to the Yokohama International Center of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Yokohama and the World Bank Tokyo Office’s Public Information Center. Later this month, Itagaki will release a box set of African Beauty photographs, a compilation of 21 color pictures suitable for framing.African Beauty

From March 17 to April 16, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Closed Sundays and national holidays.

Canon Gallery in Minato Ward, Tokyo, an eight-minute walk from the Konan exit of JR Shinagawa Station.

Admission free. For details, visit the gallery’s Web site at The exhibition will tour to the Yokohama International Center of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Yokohama from April 18 to May 13 and the World Bank Tokyo Office’s Public Information Center in Uchisaiwaicho, Tokyo, from May 7 to 23.

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