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‘The international scene is a subculture in itself in Japan.’
Gems in this
Born in Lagos and raised in a small town outside Düsseldorf, German–Nigerian Serah Alabi has long confronted her own sense of belonging. Then, at the outset of her career, a gutsy move to the frenetic metropolis of Tokyo saw the photographer and writer further explore her own female experience.
In a bid to understand her cultural lens, Serah poised her camera to capture the perspectives of other women living in Japan. This examination of identity through the universal language of documentary photography brokered an interest in unique and often unexplored feminine sensibilities — and also saw the young talent report on the black lives matter movement in Japan. We chat to Serah about life in Tokyo, building both her community, and her creative voice.
On creativity taking you places
I was the first person in my family to branch out from the norm. I studied law for one year and realised it wasn’t my thing, so moved to London and studied fashion journalism at the University for the Creative Arts. I then spent a year in Australia, then I moved back to Germany to work as a freelance stylist, writer and photographer.
In my last year of university, I went to Tokyo for three weeks with a friend. I fell in love with everything and had this sense that I needed to live there. I was going to do my master’s anyways, and thought why not do it in Japan. I was in Tokyo for two- and-a-half years. After I finished my master’s, I stayed another six months to work, before COVID saw me return to Germany.
On using photography to explore
When I first moved, I was trying to get used to the Japanese traditions and way of life. I did a lot of photography. This got me interested in the female perspective of things. My academic writings were from a feminist agenda, and even my bachelor’s thesis was about whether a geisha could be a feminist. I wanted to continue this conversation but using visual arts, so I placed more time into understanding the female gaze and how it translated nationally and internationally. At that point people hadn’t really shone a light on this in Japan, and female photographers were very underrepresented.
On how Japan influenced your work
I developed more of a documentary style of photography in Japan. In Tokyo, I wanted to tell the stories of the people, and bring more awareness to the conversations that should be held. My second exhibition was on the black female voice in Japan. I photographed different black women living in Japan, all with different jobs — one was even the current Miss Universe Japan. I photographed these women and then had a panel discussion about being black and a woman in Japan. I wanted to inspire the younger generations, especially those who are mixed race. There are a lot of mixed children in Japan, yet they’re not perceived as Japanese, even though they live their whole lives there. It’s important these children have role models they can look up to.
On growing up in Germany
I was born in Lagos and grew up there for a couple of years before moving to Germany. I went to elementary school and high school near Düsseldorf then moved to London for university. But from the age of 11, I would visit Nigeria every year during summer holidays. My parents would ship me off, saying I was too comfortable in Germany. So I’d spend time with family in Lagos and reconnect with my roots.
‘Germany is always going to be my comfort home because most of my family and friends live here. Its familiarity always draws me back in. But Nigeria is my roots home.’
On reconnecting with Nigeria
The first time I went back to Nigeria, I didn’t know I was returning. It was an ambush. My Mom woke me up early in the morning and said to get ready. I was on school holidays and didn’t understand why I needed to get up or why there was a suitcase packed. Mom said ‘You’re going to Nigeria,’ and I said, ‘Wait, where?!’ At that time I was pretty disconnected from my family in Nigeria — I was 11 and flying alone. Nigerians instantly know that you’ve not grown up there. I was also not used to seeing black people everywhere, as I was the only black person in my entire school. It was overwhelming, yet it did feel like a homecoming. And after the second year it became normal and I really looked forward to it.
On where to go in Lagos
It’s become really cool to go to Lagos. But I only see people heading to the richer areas, where the wealthy live. The place I enjoyed in my childhood was this large market called Balogun Market. My family had stores there and I’d head down in the morning, sit and talk to whoever was around, and buy food from the ladies carrying it all on their heads. It was nice just to enjoy everyday life.
On defining ‘home’
Germany is always going to be my comfort home because most of my family and friends live here. Its familiarity always draws me back in. But Nigeria is my roots home. Even though I’m Nigerian, I could never actually live there. You have to be tough and know what you’re doing, and I’m a very laid-back person. Japan was always temporary, and it never felt like home, especially because my Japanese still sucks, even after living there for two-and-a-half years.
On finding your community in Japan
The international scene is a subculture in itself in Japan. There are people from all around the world and they all have their own creative style. They also all support each other and support the arts. Every month there is an event called Tokyo LoveHotels. It lets artists display their work from fashion to photography or life painting. You go to discover new art and new perspectives. My first exhibition was in Tokyo and I was really surprised that the space let me exhibit for free, and that so many people came. I had people turn up — expats and locals — who I’d met maybe once or twice before, yet they came to support me and take the time to understand my work. It was amazing, you don’t really get that everywhere. It was amazing to be part of this subculture.
‘The international scene is a subculture in itself in Japan. There are people from all around the world, and they all have their own creative style. They also all support each other.’
On the female gaze in Japan
When I was diving into the history of Japanese photography and the female gaze, I found that technology really contributed. One example is photo booths, called purikura, that were introduced in the 1990s. They were popular among teenage girls who would express themselves through self-portraits. This photography is very much part of the Japanese female gaze, which is really interesting.
I really tried to go beyond the superficial level and understand the norms of Japanese culture. This then meant that many participants were open to being models in my photo series because no one had really given them a platform, especially not the Japanese media. It was really nice to give females more visibility.
On being black in Japan
I did quite a lot of writing in Japan, especially during the Black Lives Matter movement, covering how the Japanese populace reacted. I covered the history of black people in Japan, and we hosted an event to discuss race in the country. It was really successful and we translated the discussion so everyone could join in — the conversation was very open.
On the scariest thing about moving to Tokyo
The train system was the biggest hurdle. It made me realise how enormous the city is. I remember thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to get from A to B?!’ It didn’t help that my university’s station was the busiest station in the world, with so many exits. If you took the wrong exit you’d be done for — you might have to walk for an hour before you were back in the right spot.
‘The best thing in Tokyo is to walk; then you can always find something new…like a shrine sitting next to a skyscraper, a new café, or secondhand shop.’
On tackling Tokyo by foot
The best thing in Tokyo is to walk; then you can always find something new. When my brother came to visit, I took him to the tourist spots but instead of taking the train, we walked. By walking to the next tourist spot I was able to show him more residential areas with little cafés and local restaurants. Instead of eating at the popular places, we went to the cheaper, tastier restaurants. By walking, you’ll find a totally different world, like a shrine sitting next to a skyscraper, a new café, or secondhand shop. There’s so much to discover. Tokyo never gets old and you’ll never get bored.
On your favorite neighborhood in Tokyo
Shimokitazawa is a really charming neighborhood in the western part of Tokyo. It’s very trendy with a lot of nice cafés and secondhand clothing shops. There are also markets there and great local food, it’s a relaxing spot to walk around.
On where to eat
One of my favourite restaurants was Fuunji. It’s a ramen restaurant, but dip ramen. It’s become really popular with foreigners now, but I used to see only Japanese people there after work or during their lunch breaks. Curry House CoCo Ichibanya is a curry chain that’s like McDonald’s fast food, and is really good. I also love the smaller spots that you don’t even know the names for, you just know how to get there.
On getting your culture fix
I used to go to Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills all of the time. It is a really good museum to find new artists, both local and international. Another museum is the former residence of Prince Yasuhiko Asaka. It’s an old art deco villa built by the prince, and it was turned into a museum in 1983. It’s called the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum and it has a really nice traditional Japanese garden, an outdoor café and a really beautiful museum. With all of the original residence intact, it’s also really cool to see how this branch of the royal family lived 100 years ago. And if you’re ever in Tokyo, you need to go to teamLab Museum. It’s an amazing, interactive experience. I went to this exhibition by photographer Mika Ninagawa. She did an installation of very visual and colorful holograms of flowers and butterflies. Mika is a more well-known Japanese photographer, but there are a lot of up-and-coming females picking up their cameras and showing their lens on Japan.
‘People don’t really stop working in Japan…at my university there was a statue of the old principal, who I thought must have died, but he was still alive and coming into work at the age of 90.’
On cultural differences
People don’t really stop working in Japan. Even if they’re 80 they’re still working. In my local supermarket there were five older Japanese men working. I always wondered if they’d rather be at home or traveling, but that’s not an option for them. At my university there was a statue of the old principal, who I thought must have died, but he was still alive and coming into work at the age of 90.
On the best advice for life in a new place
Learn the language. At least a couple of sentences and the basic principles. Learning the culture is also really important. Don’t go there without knowing the basics only to find yourself doing something stupid, when you could have easily googled it.
On a window or an aisle seat
Window. Always a window. As a visual artist, I always like to look out and not only take pictures — I have so many pictures of clouds — but also to look out and dream.
On Tokyo in one word