Tom Skipp: “While Rwanda’s society is deeply complex, I feel a great connection”

See the British photographer's images of Rwanda’s amasunzu hairstyle, as featured in the latest issue of Jocks & Nerds

Hairstyles do not get more spectacularly sculptural than the traditional Rwandan cut known as the amasunzu. In recent months, early 20th century photographs of Rwandans wearing amasunzus have circulated widely on the internet and rippled through the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium, the country’s one-time colonial ruler. Jocks&Nerds decided to investigate the tonsorial phenomenon at its source.

Tom Skipp is the first photographer to travel to Rwanda to investigate the amasunzu since the emergence of the internet meme. Skipp – who previously lived in Rwanda for eight months art-directing Ni Nyampinga, a charity magazine aimed at improving the lives of girls and young women – visited Kigali, the Rwandan capital, where he hooked up with Wamazina Hassan Harby, a youthful septuagenarian who sports the style, and 18-year-old Janet Kayitesi Kabuci.

Guided by Harby, Skipp discovered the stirring of a revival of interest in the amasunzu, which along with so much other indigenous African culture has been in decline, a victim of the widespread post-colonial adoption of European style and social mores. The hegemonic impact of European culture has been intensified in Rwanda by the trauma caused by the genocide of 1994, when at least a million Tutsi people were slaughtered by militias sanctioned by elements in the Hutu-dominated government. In efforts to cement ethnic reconciliation, it is now illegal in Rwanda to say the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi,” and traditional Rwandan customs may come with newly acquired baggage.

To hear more about his project, featured in Jocks & Nerds Issue 21, we caught up with Skipp.

Could you tell me about yourself and what you do?
I’ve worked as a graphic designer and art director for the last 15 years. I worked with Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver designing music sleeves before joining EMI and working as an Art Director there. I’ve always tried to use my own image making in my work through photographic processes. Currently I work as a photographer in London, pursuing projects that help people’s understanding of others.

You previously lived in Rwanda working as an art director for a charity magazine aimed at improving the lives of girls and young women. What made you pursue work in Rwanda?
I’d been in London for some time. I needed to experience something else and something that benefitted others. I’d began to think that all of my work was just about earning money for large corporations. Rwanda appealed to me as it was something so foreign to me, it made me apprehensive before I went and it made me feel more alive than I ever have when I was there. I think Rwanda’s recent history means that the things I experienced felt more connected to basic needs of life. While their society is deeply complex and I’ll never understand the deep rooted problems, I felt a great connection with the people and the land.

How did you discover the resurgence of the amasunzu?
While working at the magazine I’d seen illustrations that we’d commissioned with characters who portrayed traditional Rwandan values, the stories explained parables. These characters were drawn with the amasunzu hairstyle, this gave the impression that they were wise and that they’d impart knowledge that was worth listening to. While I lived in Rwanda I didn’t see the amasunzu hair cut, and in fact not many people wear it. I reached out to my contacts in Kigali and through word of mouth people know who wears this haircut, it’s a statement to be proud of traditional Rwandan culture pre-colonial times.

Do you think this has a positive impact to African culture?
To remember a time when Rwanda hadn’t been torn apart by the divisive nature of Belgian rule can only be a positive thing. Despite spending a lot of time listening to the history of the amasunzu I don’t understand the exact meaning of the haircut and how deep to goes within the society, whether it was perceived as a ruling class that wore this haircut. On speaking to a troupe that wear it for performances it seemed that the type of amasunzu that you had discerned where you stood in the community.

How did you approach each of the subjects during your trip? Could you tell me about your creative process?
I lived in Rwanda for eight months and knew what to expect in terms of weather and backdrop. For the majority of the time the sun shines bright and this makes the houses, which are painted with colourful advertising, really sing. I spent a long time with the subjects, talking about the culture of the amasunzu and we visited a museum about Rwandan history. For me, the most important part was for them to feel comfortable and that we were expressing a true message.

Some Africans consider the hairstyle to be a little odd. Why do you think some of these individuals embrace it?
I think that the haircut is a statement of individuality in an otherwise subservient community. It doesn’t pay to have such a strong voice here and blending in is the easiest way to live. Wanting to be proud of a history pre-colonialism is still a brave step and displaying any signs of a tribal past is still difficult due to the Genocide. Wamazina, the self-titled ‘Street Prince’, is a very proud Rwandan. He’s travelled a lot, which is rare in this country, so he understands the importance of where he’s from. The amasunzu haircut is an ultimate display of where he’s from.