At first, it’s unclear where these people might be. Somewhere tropical, maybe. Somewhere humid. Certainly somewhere fragrant — gardenias, pink lotion, shea butter — and carefree. There, beneath the cosmos, a face’s scattered freckles rhyme neatly with the stars. The tallest woman you’ve ever seen looms high above a city. Huddled closely, a man and a woman pose against a sheet of mottled sky, skin twinkling like all the world’s sunshine is trapped behind their faces. As the photographs accumulate, a setting crystal lizes: it’s a sun-drenched arcadia of leisure and Black beauty, a fictional place thirty-oneyear-old photographer William Ukoh calls “the Willyverse.” Obviously, the Willyverse doesn’t appear on any map, but when asked how he might describe it, Ukoh says only that it’s an imagined “midway point between Nigeria and Canada” — his place of birth and adopted homeland, respectively. Otherwise, he would prefer that the viewer made up their own interpretation.
Ukoh, who lives in Toronto, has been building this world since 2016. He has photographed artists and actors for GQ and beauty stories for Vogue Portugal. He has collaborated with fashion designers and exhibited in galleries across New York, Lagos, Toronto, and Amsterdam. All the while, he has refused to make a distinction between his fine art and his commercial work, preferring instead to see it all as the moving parts of one self-contained universe, a place that expands with each new image. “There’s definitely a surreal element to the world,” he says.
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