Beyhum imagines emojis as traditional African masks

Photos: Martha Mukaiwa

The universal language of emojis is pulled from the cellphone screen and brought to real and photographic life in Toufic Beyhum’s ‘Amoji’.

Presenting a collection of emoji masks fashioned with wood, beads, wire, feathers, shells and other natural and recyclable materials, as well as a series of photographs in which people don the masks in the different spaces in which Beyhum encounters them, ‘Amoji’ (African emoji) is currently on display at The Project Room in Windhoek.

At the exhibition’s opening, the wearable traditional African style masks inspire much interaction.

Akin to the photographs which capture people sitting on benches, lying on seaweed or conducting their work as a security guard, the oversized masks lend an element of caricature to everyone who disappears behind the veil.

As the evening goes on, visitors navigate past their cellphone keypads, where their assortment of emojis live, to snap photographs wearing their preferred visual representation.

‘Heart eyes’ is popular and the ‘LOL’ emoji (Beyhum’s favourite) also has its fans.

The transformation is instant. Suddenly, viewers are overwhelmed with love, crying with laughter, winking cheekily with tongue out or red – faced and embarrassed.

While watching patrons morph below the digital shorthand is diverting, ‘Amoji’ speaks to some deeper observations about masks and connectivity.

“When I first came to Namibia eight years ago, I noticed people were more connected face to face. I saw more people talking on benches and talking over dinner, and now all I see are people constantly taking selfies or looking down on their phones, so that’s how I came up with the idea,” says Beyhum, who worked with Namibian artists Saimi Iita and Petrus Shiimi to create the masks.

“The idea is the juxtaposition between Namibian culture and modern-day technology. This is not just an African problem, by the way, it is worldwide. And personally, I hate it. That’s why I relate to it as a ‘problem’.”

While many emojis are rendered as disembodied yellow faces or severed, gesticulating limbs flexing muscles, praying, high-fiving or signalling ‘okay’, in ‘Amoji’, Beyhum gives these faces bodies, gestures or African print backgrounds which situate the emojis in Namibia through landscape and people and in Africa at large.

Once again pushing back against the digital world, Beyhum shoots entirely on film and does not retouch his images.

In producing the series, the creative director and photographer’s process involved carrying six masks in his car boot for two years and stopping whenever he saw the potential to take a photograph.

“Everything you see is exactly as it was. Nothing was directed or changed. The sunflower seller was there, the guy with the snake was a snake handler at Swakopmund, the boys on the bench were already sitting on the bench, and the man with the guitar was walking around with a guitar,” says Beyhum.

“Emojis have become a language of their own, and everyone, no matter what culture or language, gets them. That’s why when I showed the people I photographed the masks, their faces lit up.”

The same can be said for patrons encountering the masks at the recent opening of ‘Amoji’.

“The way people at the opening interacted with the masks was the same way the people I photographed interacted. It’s the first time that the actual masks were exhibited with the photography prints, and it made a big difference in the energy of the space,” says Beyhum.

“The whole mood changes as soon as you put a mask on. You could be sad and put on a happy emoji, and no one would know, and vice versa.

“I guess we all put on masks all day long any way, pretend we are okay when we are not or laugh at a client’s joke even though it’s not funny.”

Amusing yet inquiring, ‘Amoji’, which has been showcased in the United States, Norway, Russia, Italy and Dubai, will be on display at The Project Room until 9 March before continuing its travels around Africa and beyond.

“You don’t have to be African to relate to this work. We are all victims of social media and everyone will see themselves in the situation, whether sad, happy or shocked,” says Beyhum, who is no longer taking photographs of the masks in the wild of the everyday.

“That chapter is closed, but the photos can travel and be exhibited wherever they bring joy.”

–; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram;

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