The Black Vanguard at the Saatchi Gallery brings together 15 photographers.

The Black Vanguard at the Saatchi Gallery brings together 15 photographers.

Black photographers and creatives are breathing new life and energy into the industry with images of beauty and grace and shaking up notions of gender and identity. Check out these five artists who are creating a stir.

One of the pioneers of black British photography, Ronald ‘Charlie’ Phillips, was awarded an OBE in the 2022 New Year Honours for services to photography and the arts.

This recognition was long overdue, as the Jamaican-born photographer was documenting Notting Hill in the 1960s, capturing the visual landscape of a Britain notorious for graffiti on walls reading ‘Keep Britain white’ and adverts for housing warning ‘No coloureds’.

Who can forget the haunting image of his 1967 photo ‘Notting Hill Couple’, taken at a party of a young black man and a white woman in her white knitted cardigan, heads touching, defiantly in love? It has stood the test of time, is beautifully lit and could happily grace the pages of The Face or iD magazines.

Things have changed since then, although not as much as one would have hoped. But at least Phillips, as a black British photographer, is no longer a rarity on the art scene. An exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London investigates portraiture produced by the new wave of black photographers, stylists and models.

The new Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion is curated by Antwaun Sargeant and showcases some of the most exciting talents right now. Sargeant has also written a book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion, which he hopes will be a resource to the industry.

One of the common complaints the curator and champion of young black photographers has heard from those in power is that they want to hire more people from a global majority background but can’t find them. This book should do the trick, as it features 15 artists, all with very different styles that cross-pollinate and fuse the genres of art and fashion photography.

The Black Vanguard at the Saatchi Gallery is a sumptuous gathering of striking imagery, showcasing the works of 15 contemporary black photographers. It is on until 22 January.

1. Nadine Illewere

One of the photographers chosen for the Chelsea show is Nadine Ilewere, who feels excited about her work exhibited at the gallery. “This represents progress and more boundaries being removed. London is my home. I still remember school trips to the Saatchi! Now we are here, together, telling our stories!”

Nadine Ilewere’s work draws on non-traditional faces with the purpose of bringing the viewer’s gaze to alternative standards of beauty. The southeast London-born photographer focuses on identity and diversity, drawing on her own Nigerian/Jamaican background. Ilewere studied photography at UAL’s London College of Fashion. During her final year, she started casting mixed-heritage models who fell outside the fashion industry’s norm. Ilewere uses social media to make contact with other collaborators and casting models she has found on Instagram.

Nadine Ilewere’s work draws on non-traditional faces with the purpose of bringing the viewer’s gaze to alternative standards of beauty.

Nadine Ilewere’s work draws on non-traditional faces with the purpose of bringing the viewer’s gaze to alternative standards of beauty.

Her photo Untitled, chosen for The Black Vanguard exhibition, is a riot of colour. We can just about see the person’s forehead and eyes; the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the magnificent leopard print suit they are wearing. The bright blue sky and vivid red flowers surrounding the model exude vibrancy and joy, which is exactly what Ijewere says about her work. “I photograph beautiful Black people. Beautiful Black families. Beautiful people of colour from many different backgrounds. My work has been penetrating an industry that, for so long, has shut us out. This, to me, is a beautiful disruption.”

2. Adrienne Raquel

The photographer’s work has roots in nostalgia and fantasy yet still remains fresh and contemporary. Her aim, she says, is to inspire and pave the way for black creatives who want to be image makers. Photography has been dominated by white men since Victorian times, and Adrienne Raquel, Raquel aims to break this down, particularly as we approach 2023, with black creatives becoming more influential in pop culture, film, music and fashion.

Her image in The Black Vanguard, ModernM, shows two disembodied hands touching, one with long red fingernails, the other less defined and partly in deep shadow. But which is male and which female? As non-binary identity becomes more accepted, Raquel’s image questions our notions of race, beauty, gender and power.

Adrienne Raquel's image image in The Black Vanguard, ModernM, shows two disembodied hands touching, one with long red fingernails, the other less defined and partly in deep shadow.

Adrienne Raquel’s image image in The Black Vanguard, ModernM, shows two disembodied hands touching, one with long red fingernails, the other less defined and partly in deep shadow.

Her solo show, ONYX, was at Fotografiska, New York. Named after Houston’s Club Onyx, the series is a documentary-style approach to Black women working as exotic dancers.

3. Ruth Ossai

Growing up in Southeastern Nigeria and now based in West Yorkshire, UK, Ruth Ossai is known for her portrait and studio photography that empowers Nigerian communities. She creates narratives with her subjects that celebrate their personal identities.

Ossai, who also works in youth development in the UK and across Africa,
recently collaborated with filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr on a special project for Kenzo and has also shown at LagosPhoto. Her latest series is a multimedia concept with fashion designer and recent Central Saint Martins’ graduate Mowalola Ogunlesi at Labs.

Ruth Ossai creates narratives with her subjects that celebrate their personal identities.

Ruth Ossai creates narratives with her subjects that celebrate their personal identities.

Ossai started snapping on her father’s BlackBerry, and then as a teenager, she was given a shoot-and-go camera by her mother. “I wanted to photograph my life in Nigeria to show my other family in Yorkshire, and so I would make lots of photo albums. The images were low quality, but I still love this archive. Ever since then, I’ve been documenting life in Nigeria and Igbo identity. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve shared these images with a larger audience.”

She uses backdrops as a reminder of the amazing special effects and scenes you see in Nollywood films, inspired by the vibrant colours of the Nigerian film industry. She also loves setting up a studio in someone’s compound – they eat ebà and soup, listen to music and have fun. She likes to get to know people first and then snap later. In that way, she can include personal touches like props.

Her picture Ebute Metta shines through with an unapologetic sense of pride and confidence that comes through her photographs.

4. Sophia Oshodin

While the Black Vanguard exhibition has created a stunning showcase exploring the work of black photographers, there are many more up-and-coming influencers in other genres. Oshodin is a British-Nigerian, self-taught figurative painter.

The London-based artist is influenced by storytelling and uses imaginary subjects to highlight the absence of black people in western art. Oshodin draws on many disparate genres for inspiration, from African arts, fashion, and politics to Old Masters’ works.

“In my art, I create moments and capture the beauty of everyday life. I use my work to celebrate the beauty of colour as it exists in places and the community while conveying a message of joy and using colour as a tool to keep those moments alive. Drawing inspiration from African Arts, Fashion, and everyday experience.”

Sophia Oshodin is influenced by storytelling, and uses imaginary subjects to highlight the absence of black people in western art.

Sophia Oshodin is influenced by storytelling, and uses imaginary subjects to highlight the absence of black people in western art.

Her painting Fearless IV explores beauty, inner strength, resilience and courage. Oshodin has participated in group exhibitions in the UK, USA, Lagos and The Other Art Fair in 2021 in London. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Kate Bryan Art prize.

5. Helena Appio

The British Nigerian-born artist is a graduate of St Martin’s and Middlesex University, where she studied fashion and textiles.

As well as being an illustrative artist, she is also a filmmaker. Appio is inspired by the talismanic iconography of traditional West African Adire textile designs.

The technique of gouache and Indian ink used in these images mirrors the technique used in the indigo resist process of Adire fabric. Circle of life is one of a number of prints from an original series of paintings, ‘The Wisdom of Angels’.

Helen Appio is inspired by the talismanic iconography of traditional West African Adire textile designs.

Helen Appio is inspired by the talismanic iconography of traditional West African Adire textile designs.

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