Ileke is a conceptual portrait collection celebrating the power of the African woman by illuminating her strength, sensuality and vulnerability.
In Yoruba practice and wisdom, ileke (waist beads) is used for various spiritual and beauty practices such as: for healing, as a symbol of love, as a rite of passage, for fertility, fecundity, weight control, proof of chastity, and sexual allure amongst others.
The Ileke comes in many colours which can mean different things, although some might simply wear colours they like or are drawn to. For example:
Red can signify self-confidence, vitality, sexual energy, passion, courage
Blue can signify knowledge, healing, peace, truth, harmony, devotion
Black obsidian can signify protection, energy shielding, decisions, grounding
African women are courageous, full of strength, compassion, love, humility, and perseverance amongst others. However, it was important for me to also show that we can be vulnerable, soft and sensual, some of these attributes which we are often denied of encompassing.
For all of my personal projects, it is essential for me to have my subjects be part of the story. For this collection, I asked each woman to use three to four words to describe how she feels empowered in her body as a woman and in her sensuality. These personal affirming words are what you see written on their bodies.
I’m excited to share that Ileke was first exhibited with Distinguished Diva in Athens, Greece from 16- 23 June 2019 as part of the Athens and Epidauras Festival.
Inspiration for Ileke
The idea for Ileke came one evening in July or August 2018 while I was walking home. It came as a mysterious shadowed motion visual of a woman swaying her hips adorned by traditional red Edo beads. As the idea developed, I transformed the inspiration to what you see today in the portraits. Also, at the time, I had recently attended an event by the Poet and Artist Dylema where Hoda Ali, an anti-FGM advocate and founder of The Vavengers shared her story. Moved to increase the awareness of this violence against women, I decided that this project will also be used as a means to bring awareness to this not well known human rights issue.
Ileke seeks to firstly, celebrate the tenacity, power, and sensuality of women; and secondly, to bring an awareness to the horrific and harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria where it is estimated that 25% of girls and women have undergone it, accounting for 10% of the global total.
I find it absurd that while the ileke has been used as a cultural accessory to celebrate the beauty and femininity of women, the same culture perpetuates harmful practices that stifles the autonomy of the same woman through the vile act of FGM.
At least 200 million women and girls are affected by FGM in 45 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the global diaspora. In Nigeria, 20 million (25%) women and girls aged 15 – 49 years have undergone FGM. This accounts for 10% of the global total. However, there is evidence of significant generational change in the prevalence of FGM as women aged 45-49 are around twice as likely to have been cut as girls aged 15-19.
All ethnic groups in Nigeria practise FGM, although it is almost unheard of among the Tiv. The group with the highest prevalence is the Yorubas (54.5% of women aged 15-49), women practising traditionalist religions (34.8% of women aged 15-49) and lowest among Muslim women (20.1%).
In most African countries, a mother’s level of education is a determining factor in whether her daughters will be cut. The usual expectation is that a higher level of education is linked to a lower likelihood of FGM. However, Nigerian women aged 15-49 with ‘no education’ are notably less likely to have undergone FGM (17.2%) than those with primary-level, secondary-level or higher education (about 30%). Similarly, 31% of women in Nigeria (aged 15-49) in the highest wealth quintile have undergone FGM, compared with 16.5% in the lowest quintile. FGM is most likely to take place in Nigeria before a girl reaches the age of five. Girls are less likely to be cut after the age of 15.
The main reason given for practising FGM in Nigeria is to ‘preserve virginity/prevent extra-marital sex’. This was cited by 11.2% of women and 17.3% of men who had heard of FGM in Nigeria, particularly in the oldest age-group (45 to 49). Women then cited ‘social acceptance’ and ‘better marriage prospects’ as reasons for practicing FGM while men cited ‘more sexual pleasure for a man’.
In May 2015 the government passed a federal law banning FGM in Nigeria, but this only applies in Abuja, the capital state. Other states must pass similar legislation. Called the VAPP Act (Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act), it penalises a person who performs FGM with a maximum of four years in prison or a fine of 200,000 naira ($1,000), or both.
UNICEF predicts that, despite falling rates of FGM in many countries, population growth means that up to 68 million more girls could be cut between 2015 and 2030 if efforts are not accelerated.
FGM is not a religious or medical necessity, nor is it the same as male circumcision and must be stopped!
Did you know about FGM? Please educate yourself and share this project to bring more awareness to this issue.
References & Further Reading