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

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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