Togolese German Fashion photographer Delali Ayivi has made a name for herself with some high-profile shoots, including photographing Aminata Touré, Germany’s first Black minister, for the cover of Vogue Germany last year.
But her rapid success since starting professionally in 2019 shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: after all, photography is in her blood.
Ayivi says that the Ewe people, one of Togo’s largest ethnic groups, have many beliefs about rebirth and certain personalities coming back through future generations. Her own curiosity, creativity and interest in photography echo that of her great-great-grandfather, Alex Agbaglo Acolatse – one of the first Togolese photographers.
Acolatse was born in 1880 to an affluent family and produced work that spanned nearly 50 years. From classical studio portraits of wealthy Togolese to documentary work covering captured territories, his lens gave a glimpse of what Togo was like during the German, French and British colonial periods.
In 1884, the area that is now Togo became part of the Togoland German protectorate. Lomé was laid out as a modern capital with three railways, and although the German occupation could be brutal, and used forced labor, some Ewe were recruited into what Germany called a “Musterkolonie” (model colony).
During Togo’s colonial periods, Acolatse began creating a series of postcards and taking poised studio portraits of Lomé bourgeoisie with their status shown through fashion.
Acolatse retired in the mid 1950s, a few years before Togo’s independence in 1960. He died in 1975, at 95 years old. Ayivi says what struck her most when she first saw Acolatse’s studio portraiture was what it represented – a sense of Togolese pride.
“It was for me, the first time I saw Togolese people photographed through a Togolese gaze,” she said. “The gaze that didn’t feel like it was exoticizing Togolese people.”
Her great-great-grandfather remains one of Ayivi’s biggest influences, despite them coming from completely different contexts. Ayivi was born in the US but grew up in Germany, and at the age of 15 moved to Lilongwe in Malawi before transferring to the UK to enrol at the University of the Arts London. Acolatse’s work inspired her to focus on fashion, particularly the social messages it can communicate.
For her, Acolatse’s photography challenges stereotypes of the African continent. “I’m really generalizing here, but it’s often a foreign gaze that serves a certain agenda that justifies developmental aid and all of these things,” she said. “Seeing imagery that didn’t serve this purpose at such an early stage was what inspired me.
“The intent that came behind that (Acolatse’s studio photography), it’s still a guiding principle for me today,” she added.
One of Ayivi’s favorite images of Acolatse’s is a self-portrait set against a romantic background. She argues that it is “Westernized” because of the pressures of colonial rule.
“You could see that style back in the days,” she said about Togo in the early 1900s. “The more assimilated you are, the more respected or the more serious a human you are. But there was still a sense of pride that I found very inspiring.”
Changing the lens
What Ayivi communicates in her own work is a sense of optimism and joy, even when exploring heavier subjects.
One of her favorite images that she has produced is “The Joy of it All,” which captures a group of people jumping at Lomé beach. “I’ve come to really love this image, it was a genuine moment of joy,” she said of the piece.
In 2019, Ayivi created a project called Togo Yeye in collaboration with her friend Malaika Nabilah – their aim to lift Togolese talent both at home and in the diaspora and improve Togolese representation in the creative industries. As a creative duo they’ve worked with brands like Levi’s and had their work shown on the PhotoVogue platform.
Ayivi now splits her time between New York and London, and she admits that this year she’s had the urge to step back so she can explore, experiment, and find herself again creatively.
“This industry is very fast-paced, especially in fashion, so you want to be sure that you don’t burnout quickly.”
But last month, alongside creative partner Nabilah, she was shooting in Togo again for a PhotoVogue project creating works inspired by the concept of beauty.
“For now, I’m really excited to create work in Togo again so that’s what brings me the most joy and I always find the most fulfilling,” she said.