Poly- is an honest and thought-provoking photo series that discerns the internal struggle many of us experience—making sense of our given identities while discovering who we truly are.
Ejatu Shaw, a 21-year-old multidisciplinary artist and architecture student at University of Edinburgh, is the brain behind the project. She flexes her various editing techniques to produce unique and impactful images that allow the viewer to intensely experience the thoughts and feelings of the subjects.
Shaw says she started Poly- when Reform The Funk asked her to explore her Black-British-Muslim identity.
“Made up of many different identities (British, Fulani, Muslim, West African—specifically Sierra Leonean and Guinean), the project made me realize that I often struggle to have a firm understanding of myself and my place in all the communities I belong to,” she says.
“Poly- explores the conflict I have with my identity whenever I try to connect with my Fulani roots outside of the confinements of Islam (a religion that 99 percent of Fulani people follow), and my struggle and failure to meet both the religious and cultural requirements of my tribe due to my British identity and values.”
The artist notes that throughout the project, she used polymeric materials, including plastic bags, cling film, plastic containers and trash bags, to highlight that her identity feels “synthetic and not true” to her.
“The properties of these materials mean they cannot easily be destroyed, the same way I cannot easily rid myself of Islam or my Fulani culture. Plastic cannot break itself down naturally, and instead pollutes our oceans and landscapes. Burning plastic releases toxic fumes,” Shaw explains.
“Every time I try to reinvent my identity to suit my values, every time I try to break down the polymeric chain that is my cultural and religious upbringing, nothing but toxicity comes from it and I end up feeling as though I have no identity at all. Throughout the project, my mother and grandmother serve as reminders that the Fulani identity is the only identity I’ll ever have both culturally and Islamically and I should never steer away from it.”
Shaw says the crescent—a significant symbol in Islam—is in every photo to show Islam’s continued presence in her life and identity. “Islam’s influences extend beyond theology, affecting day to day cultural practices within the Fulani community.”
Although the younger members in Shaw’s community relate and connect with her conversation around this conflict of identity, she mentions that the older members, including her parents, interpret Poly- as an homage to her Fulani culture.
“However it is far from that,” she says. “I am, in fact, in the process of questioning both my culture and religion, currently feeling myself depart from the two more and more.”