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The photo was taken in Toronto for Uzuri. Photo: Ricardo Scipio.

New Vancouver exhibit celebrates Black beauty

A virtual showcase depicting images of Black women in the nude in Vancouver’s art scene

By Chhavi Mehra , in City Culture , on April 27, 2023 Tags: , , , , , ,

Vancouver-based artist Ricardo Scipio launched his third iteration of a virtual showcase of 100 images of nude Black women this month.

The project, called “Uzuri,” meaning “beauty” in Kiswahili, was first exhibited in Miami back in 1990. Thirty years later, the project has found a new lease on life as Scipio relaunches his passion project.

Uzuri is a project representing Africa — a place where these Black women don’t have shame about their bodies and don’t feel ugly, said Scipio. 

Scipio started shooting for Uzuri in Miami in 1990. Over the next three years, he photographed Black men and women aged 20 to 65, across the U.S. and Canada.

This image is part of the Uzuri collection. Photo: Ricardo Scipio.

“I would say, ‘Imagine that you’re back in Africa, whatever Africa is to you.’ Some people tapped into their fierce African warrior spirit, and some people felt quite sad because they realized that they’ve been removed from Africa. Some people were very happy and would literally jump in the air for joy,” said Scipio.

But Scipio said this work wasn’t easy to do. Back in 1990, there wasn’t a tradition in the Black community of being photographed nude “because we’ve had hundreds of years of the dominant white culture telling us that our lips are too big, our hair is bad, that our butts are too big, that our bodies are round, that we are ugly.”  

Some prominent female artists think that Scipio’s work celebrating Black bodies is unique and extremely valuable.

Scipio was born in Trinidad and moved to Canada when he was four. He was a “painfully shy” and quiet Black kid who was often bullied and harassed by all the white kids in school, he says. But photography became Scipio’s entry into the social world that let him interact with people who normally wouldn’t interact with him.

“When I discovered photography, it gave me a voice. It gave me a way of looking at the world,” said Scipio. 

Scipio did not grow up with an album of photographs. He had very few photographs from his early childhood, he says all of which got destroyed in a fire.

“I lost all my photos of my grandmothers, all the photos that I had taken as a young person and about three-quarters that I had taken as a fashion photographer,” said Scipio. 

Though traumatized and shocked at first, Scipio treated this event as a new start.

Scipio eventually discovered fashion photography, which he admitted was great training , but he was often discouraged from taking photographs of Black women, which was something he wanted to pursue. Magazine editors based in Toronto and Montreal said that “if they put a Black woman on the cover, no one would buy the magazine,” said Scipio. 

“There was one time I was allowed to photograph a Black Jamaican model but they put a platinum blond wig on her and blue tinted contact lenses on her eyes. They did a lot to try and erase her Blackness,” said Scipio.

That’s what prompted him to start Uzuri — a three-year project photographing Black women and men, in the nude, in colour and in natural landscapes. That original work was last shown in 1993. Fast forward, 30 years to Black history month 2023, when he was able to return to the work. 

Pamela Brindley, who describes herself as a candid Latin silver sister and an artist at heart, attended one of his Uzuri shows. She said that her favourite picture was a woman with loose hair who had a tear coming down her face. 

“And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful picture,’ because it’s got so much emotion in there and it makes me wonder what she was going through and what she was feeling.”

This image is part of the Uzuri collection. Photo: Ricardo Scipio

Brindley said she had never seen such tasteful pictures of nudes, especially those who are visible minorities in Canada and in the U.S. 

“It’s good for other little girls, little Black and brown girls, to see other women and realize that they can be beautiful and they can be tasteful,” said Brindley.

Scipio held the first 14 gallery shows of Uzuri between 1990-1993, including the last one in Toronto, which led to a book being published in 2005 with the help of renowned Canadian Black poet George Elliot Clarke.

“And after that, I decided to not keep banging my head against the wall and waiting for white publishers to publish my work so I started self-publishing. So my first self-published book came out in 2012,” said Scipio. He is currently working on his tenth book. 

Both Clarke and Scipio credit Althea Prince, a Black Canadian scholar and editor of the Canadian Scholars publishing company at the time, who threatened to quit if they didn’t publish Scipio’s work.

“I think there should always be value in celebrating the actual vessel of all of humanity as represented by these daughters — these daughters of Mitochondrial Eve being photographed in all of their aghast, slender, natural backdrops,” said Clarke. 

Clarke admits that there isn’t a shortage of photographs of beautiful Black women now in the public eye like Rihanna and Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, but for him it’s difficult to say if those are art.

“[A]nybody might snap a photograph of Beyoncé but who is going to do the photograph of Beyoncé that recognizes the stellar power from within, the beauty from within?” said Clarke.

Much like Clarke, Ella Cooper, an award-winning artist and founder of Black Women Film! Canada, found that there is a lack of representation of Black female bodies in the dominant visual culture.

“What I find is that it is so beautiful to see works that are celebrating Black beauty,” said Cooper. She has worked on several projects focused on Black female nudes, including “Ecstatic Nudes.”

Through her projects, Cooper wanted to “create an affirmative, positive, self-care, healing space where Black women can be in their bodies and it wasn’t a sexual thing, that it was just a way of playing with the term ‘ecstasy,’ not as a drug but as a sense of total elation and self love and acceptance.” 

When Vancouver-based artist Angel Strehlen attended the Uzuri show, she noticed that, unlike other photographers who do nudes, Scipio’s work is natural-looking and not staged. She explained that Scipio’s work can be very challenging to publish in the art space.

“Women are so overly sexualized. We’re worried about if we are sexy enough or we might worry that we’re too sexy and they don’t see us for being a person … and what I find that Ricardo’s work does is, it cuts through all that and just gives a really honest and natural and very safe … [and] really comfortable way that you can be with nudity,” said Strehlen.

Scipio wants to create healthy and more positive, powerful and diverse images of not just Black women but people from all racialized backgrounds and gender identities. He also aims to combat the unrealistic representations of the human body.

“Sad to say 90% of the photographers that I know that do nudes are white men. They shoot in black and white, and they only shoot 20-year-old white women with their ribs showing like a cattle that hasn’t had enough to eat. That fight still needs to be had,” said Scipio.  

“I would like to see more trans people and more women create projects … I am after all a heterosexual cis-male. I can do my part in promoting a healthier vision of the human body and human sexuality but I am limited by my life experience.”

The next Uzuri show will take place on May 16 at 6 p.m. PDT. Get your tickets here.