November 4, 2009

Category: Best Of, Hot Grrrls

Mfon Essien: Photographer/Black Body Hero


After attending this panel and feeling like I got gypped out of a discussion about our own, as well as, society’s perceptions of Black female bodies I haven’t been able to shut-up. What with the unapolegetically full-figured, ebon beauty Gabourey Sidibe on the cover of NY Times Mag and Precious opening in theaters this weekend; with South African runner Caster Semenya on suicide watch after being photographed nude with her legs in stirrups by the International Association of Athletes Federation; with all the ridiculous chatter about First Lady Michelle Obama’s “toned arms” in papers from here to Pakistan, there’s enough about the pain and pleasure, grace and disgrace centered on, around, inside and up under the Black female body that I could talk for days, maybe weeks and not even mention Oprah. Now who woulda thunk that just a year ago?

I think Greg Tate said it best when he commented on the missed opportunity, saying:

A panel on the public perception/display/exploitation of various black womens bodies– Hottentot, Michelle (Obama), Serena (Williams), Caster, Precious– mos def would have leveled the trauma field and made for a richer, more self-revelatory and far less hair n skin conflicted forum. Skin and hair contretemps is a case of DNA vs beauty in the eyes of massa and miss ann–their rules, our pain, once again. But body image is where the personal and the political collude to wage psychological warfare on everybody in Holly-weird-ed out America, and I’d bet on the panel, equally.

Personally, whenever I think of Black women and body image, I think first and foremost of photographer Mfon Essien. She is my biggest inspiration. She’s my personal Black Body Superhero. Just last month, I discovered this more than beautiful essay on Mfon written by Eisa Ulen. It opens:

She looked it in the eye, showed its face on film. Breast cancer took photographer Mfon Essien’s life, but not her beauty or her soul. Mfon Essien processed Black magic. She aimed and clicked and captured images, the sound of her camera sending out a drumbeat of celebration. Like an ancient priestess, an obeah woman, a queen mother, she combined elements– paper and mysterious liquids—in the dark. She developed power. When she shot, she generated life. And when life tried to assault her, she shot back and made herself eternal.


I love Mfon most because she embraced her flaws and made them gifts, superpowers if you will at a point in her life when I think I would have been ashamed of my body. She reminds me, without a gold lasso I may add, that I am much more than the sum of my parts. That we are skin, flesh and bones, but it’s our spirit and love of self that makes our bodies beautiful, sexy, strong and unrepentant. You see in 1998 at the tender of age of 28, Mfon was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She underwent a major mastectomy to remover the cancer. Mfon knew that learning to live without her left breast was going to be an experience she needed to accept. And like many artists that find themselves at the crossroads of life, Mfon used her art to make that important first step. I interviewed her in 2000 and she shared: “I (photographed myself) specifically to heal immediately and to get over the mourning. I was like ‘you don’t have a breast and you’re not having plastic surgery anytime soon. So get it together and feel sexy today. Take these pictures now!'” (More on my talk with Mfon)

I have a photo of Mfon in my living room, another photocopy in my bedroom and she’s all over my Twitter page. In Eisa’s tribute she also states:

She bravely faced her own camera. She chose to reclaim her body through The Amazon’s New Clothes, a series of nude self-portraits, arresting images of a Black woman feeling her own power. The photographs exalt womanhood, representing Mfon in all her triumph, in all her truth. Through them, she reaffirms her innate grace, refusing to allow a scar to define her. Poised and relaxed, Mfon glories in her body, fiercely asserting her own life force. (Read Eisa’s Tribute)

Mfon’s image and her words are affirming and victorious just as I know on a certain level Gabby’s image will be for obese Black girls this side of the Pacific. It’s high time we all bravely face our own cameras, create our own truth and be empowered, sexy, healthy and at ease.


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14 Responses to “Mfon Essien: Photographer/Black Body HeroComment RSS feed

  • eisa
    November 5th, 2009 10:38 am

    thank you for remembering and celebrating our dear sister mfon.


  • Tonya R. Miller
    November 5th, 2009 10:59 am

    Greetings Nicole:

    Thank you for keeping Mfon legacy alive. It’s been some time sense you and I have connected. Mfon came into my life and changed it forever. I too have many images of her that surrounding my apartment.

    She was a fearless and brave woman.

    Bravo Ms. M… well done!

  • Fanon Che Wilkins
    November 5th, 2009 12:33 pm

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. This was a very very inspiring piece. I love how Mfon went so hard in embracing her new body and archived her fearlessness for the rest us–Ashe for that.

  • sharon
    November 5th, 2009 1:56 pm

    I’m glad to see this post has reached Japan! ;D

    And well it should be spread far and wide to help ensure Mfon’s memory lives on and on and that she be introduced to those who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing her and being informed/empowered by her work.

    Nicely done both Nicole and Eisa.

  • crystal whaley
    November 5th, 2009 3:10 pm

    Thank you for celebrating and remembering our beloved Mfon ~ my sister, housemate, and one of my greatest teachers.

    Her legacy is one of light, love beauty and divine courage.

    A phenomenal spirit, she was…


  • Jelani Bandele
    November 5th, 2009 6:22 pm

    I first met Mfon at the studio of a designer I was representing and I knew I was in the presence of someone special. Thank you for re-telling her story and posting the always profound words of Greg Tate.

  • Julia
    November 5th, 2009 9:39 pm

    Hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years…

  • Joyce E. Davis
    November 6th, 2009 12:06 am

    I was working at BET when these Mfon’s photos made their way to me. And they were as arresting to me then as they are now. I have to admit I’m not 100 percent comfortable with my body or looking at hers. But I am empowered by her choice to use her power for good and to turn what was a devastating moment in her life to something inspiring for others. Thank you for your post.

  • joicelyn Dingle
    November 7th, 2009 4:26 pm

    Nicole I love you for this. I love that Greg Tate perspective on all things black.
    I think about Mfon all the time. I miss what it meant to work with her. I am so happy she shot my first nudes. She is pure magic and light. I miss her and it is important that we keep her work and the spirit of her work alive.

  • Kierna
    November 18th, 2009 11:48 am

    How blessed are we all to have been touched by the spirit of Mfon!!! Thank you Nicole. The hotness is the hotness.

  • Leslie
    November 26th, 2009 1:36 pm

    What fearlessness and uncommon spirit Mfon had. Thank you for sharing her story, Nikki.

  • Radha Blank
    November 29th, 2009 3:10 am

    as a person who has struggled with weight and struggled with identity as it relates to weight gain and weight loss, this has been a soul shaking lesson/reminder. Mfon had a body that many craved to hold, to possess and touch…a toned, slick, gazzle-like, chocolate body adored for its physical, visually stunning external beauty…and yet within this most beautiful frame, there was a war being fought. This article has reminded me to appreciate the rolls, the cellulite, the extra meat i have often scoffed at, cursed at, damned and dismissed. It is my body. It is here. It is fat. It is mine.

  • Karen
    December 4th, 2009 10:18 pm

    Nicole your so dope. I have been blessed to have been photographed by Mfon and is absolutely by far the best portrait of my life. SHE WAS AMAZING!!!

  • black lily
    July 6th, 2010 5:49 pm

    Nicole, I remember that beautiful interview you did in 2000. ASANTE, Sis. She’s one of my personal body (and life) heros too….for so many reasons (most which I’m too cowardly to share on this open thread), but suffice it to say there are some aspects of my own struggle which are similar to this M’s. Her courage is something I’ve held onto…so much so, that I saved all those old clippings (remember the Essence interview/pictoral??) and even have a half-written novel (which may always stay half written) chilin’ in an old desk drawer… inspired, in large part, by the images from “The Amazon’s New Clothes.” Anyway, I yammmer on. Just wanted to say thank you for remembering and holding space for this sister’s powerful story and beautiful spirit.