• March 22, 2016

In Styling Hair, Nigerian Refugees Tell of Tradition, Pride, and Beauty

Alexa Keefe

Salvatore Di Gregorio’s portrait series, Project Mirabella: Tales of Beauty, is a blend of photographic languages: fashion meets portraiture meets documentary—”a beauty project with a twist of social reportage,” he says.

Picture of a woman with white markings around her eyes
Blessing. “Mirabella”

His models are a group of young Nigerian women who, along with thousands of others, have made the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe with nothing but hope for a better life. They have found themselves, at least temporarily, in a women-only, government-run refugee camp in the small Sicilian town of Mirabella Imbaccari. Here they are in limbo, with little to do while the Italian government processes their claims for asylum.

Picture of the back of a woman's head, her shoulder-length hair falling in large curls
Joy. “ZigZag”

Sicily, where Di Gregorio grew up, has long been an entry point for refugees crossing into Europe. As a result it has been a cultural melting pot, both accepting of newcomers and sympathetic of their plight. “I have memories of tragedy happening in the Mediterranean sea. It has always [been] part of the Sicilian memory.”

Picture of a woman with three braids adorned with beads hanging in front of her face
Adesda. “Three Wishes With Pink Beads”

But he has seen a shift in attitudes recently as increasing numbers of migrants strain local resources, and reports of crime (though committed by few) make the headlines. Saddened by this tension, he decided to become part of the conversation. “I wanted to create a project to give a voice to these people. I am not a politician—I can’t grant them permission to stay—but I can use my photography.”

Picture of a woman in profile wearing a large hoop earring and a pearl necklace

Di Gregorio, who also works as a fashion photographer, has long been fascinated by the elaborate hairstyles of West Africa and the ways they are used as expressions of ceremony, ritual, status, and in essence, the emotion that goes along with being at certain points in life.

Picture of a woman wearing large hoop earrings with her eyes averted
Blessing. “Okto”

Building on this tradition, he invited these women to create a look for themselves that represented their current status as refugees. His goal was to reconnect them with their cultural identity and to give their traditional beauty back to them, Di Gregorio says. Beauty becomes an expression of dignity, individuality, and pride.

Picture of the back of a woman's head, her hair braided and adorned with cowrie shells
Rosemond. “Sewakoto: the motherland of Ghana. The distress refugee lady that missing her family.”

Di Gregorio was granted access to two camps through a friend who was working as a cultural mediator. He spent several visits getting to know the women before returning with his camera, easing their fears of being photographed (some of the women agreed to be photographed though did not want their faces shown).

Picture of a woman with braided hair
Blessing. “Mirabella”

Di Gregorio helped them find materials in the local markets—beads, shells, extensions, ribbons—and over the next two days the women worked to create their unique look, which they then named. He decided to present these portraits in black and white (black and black, as he refers to them) as a way of giving each woman the same opportunity to showcase what she had done, regardless of her skill level as a stylist.

Picture of the back of a woman's head, her hair elaborately braided into a bun and adorned with strings of beads
Josephine. “Yoruba”

This June, Di Gregorio is planning an exhibition of the portraits in Sicily, where he plans to invite the women to do hair and makeup for the attendees as a way to show off their skills and share this aspect of their culture.

“Migration is a reflection of our time,” says Di Gregorio. “[It is] an issue, but … when cultures meet there is an opportunity to develop new things.”

Salvatore Di Gregorio wishes to thank Manuela Scebba, Samuele Buoncompagni and staff at SPRAR Mirabella, Katia Palmieri and staff at Sprar Vizzini, and Sol Calatino Rocco Sciacca for their help making Project Mirabella possible. See more of Di Gregorio’s work on his website.

There are 4 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sherrie Miranda
    May 11, 2016

    When I lived in New Orleans, I learned that many of the blacks there (they didn’t like the word African American back then as they felt it was being imposed on them) could be traced back to a particular tribe or area in Africa by the way the mothers did the daughters’ hair.
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  2. Pamela Peterson
    May 9, 2016

    May everyone who sees these photos rejoice in the beauty and sympathize with the pain.

  3. Giacomo
    March 27, 2016

    A great way to express dignity and cultural background Complimenti

  4. Susan Hayek-Kent
    March 23, 2016

    I can’t remember if I commented on these photos or not.
    the women, they are so beautiful.
    I hope they can learn to appreciate themselves.

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