From Refugee to Runway
A supermodel raises awareness about South Sudanese conflict
Tribeca When model Nykhor Paul was nine, she fled her native South Sudan for a refugee camp in Ethiopia before coming to the United States with her uncle. The rest of her family stayed behind, and her mother, father and siblings still live in the same camp. She's never been back.
The 5'11" model has done well for herself since then. She's walked runways at New York Fashion Week, posed in editorial spreads and landed campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg, but one of the most important photo shoots she's done lately was for "Our Side of the Story: South Sudan," a portrait series that showed at Tapir Editions Gallery on White Street on April 10. In January, shortly after civil war again broke out in South Sudan, Paul partnered with fashion photographer Mike Mellia for the series of 14 portraits of South Sudanese models, actors, students and activists who all work to raise awareness and inspire peace in South Sudan.
"They're all very successful in America," said Mellia about the subjects of the portraits, many of whom were refugees who fled during the Sudanese civil war. A few were once child soldiers. "Once you get to know them, their stories are so much more interesting than what the fashion and entertainment worlds put forward. For me, I wanted to bring these two worlds together."
Through her global initiative We Are Nilotic, meaning we are of the Nile, Paul aims to give a voice to South Sudanese women and bring an end to tribalism along the Nile, but the confluence of her career in fashion with her personal history provides an opportunity for Paul to share her own story.
Paul said that, as a model, she's often asked where she's from, and takes the opportunity to educate members of the fashion community on the conflict in South Sudan.
"If I go to a photo shoot, I talk to everyone and ask if they know what's going on in South Sudan," said Paul, who found a South Sudanese community in New York City which includes fellow model Ajak Deng, who also posed for Mellia's portrait series. "The education already started with photographers and designers, and throughout the fashion industry people are educating themselves. They're seeing more of us."
In the portraits, all of the subjects wear their own clothes and sit in a wooden folding chair against a dark gray backdrop. Some look at the camera, while many fix a pensive gaze elsewhere. Paul wears a black sweater and leather pants, with a black and white head wrap and Chuck Taylor high tops fixed with safety pins.
"There's a very strong sense of individuality in all of the portraits," said Mellia, who takes a 'painterly' approach to portraiture and references masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio. "A lot of them were losing family members in the conflict around the time I photographed them. It was a very powerful experience."
Through We Are Nilotic, Paul worked with the United Nations to bring eight South Sudanese women who now live throughout the United States and Canada to New York City, to participate in a video interview series that will live on her organization's website, which is currently in the works. Giving a voice to members of the diaspora is all part of raising awareness, Paul said.
"We really want people to pay attention," she said. "When I look at the news, I'm reading about Ukraine and Venezuela. In my country, people are being shot down every day and people aren't paying attention. And now with the rainy season coming the refugee camps are packed. I see this on the news and it breaks my heart. There are so many clueless people."
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