Late one evening last week, Holly putts down a dark driveway on a remote coastal Island and nestles her car under an enormous grandmother oak. Hours after finishing class and crossing the length of the state, this intrepid design student enters my house to find a small group of women she has never met, gives us each a warm embrace, and pulls up a chair at our candlelit table.
Two others have made the journey from Atlanta, and over soup and cornbread, we begin to unpack our stories: studies in architecture, bi-lingual motherhood, a business start-up. In the telling, I learn that Holly is a Montagnard from the central highlands of Vietnam, of the indigenous tribe of Jarai, (thus bearing the glorious cheekbones I had admired in her modeling portfolio.)
Almira is from Kazakstan and of the Adai tribe, known for its fierce bravery; and while we delight in her wedding picture—traditional dress and fluffy white hat against the snowy mountains of her birth—we also worry over the threatening Russian presence in the region where her family remains.
Nylah traces her ancestry to the Lumbee, a proud indigenous tribe in what is now North Carolina—one which embraced the remaining survivors of the Hatteras, the Tuscarora, and the Cheraw when forced marches to the west began, marrying with those of their native region, white and black, and forming a community like no other.
As our conversation opens the way toward one another, I hear through open doors water lapping against the bank, raccoons scuttling, the occasional fish flopping under a sliver moon. The candles are dimming. My husband is washing the dishes. I look with tenderness on this moment as the world converges at my table, as women of vastly different tribes quietly braid our lives together.
Early the next morning, each stumbles out of bed to allow our hair and make-up genie to try and better their beauty, though it is hard to imagine how. Mel arrives with her camera, finding the light and tracing its path across their faces. Marisa and Sarah haul in a carload of new Ibu, marshaling bangles and bags on my bed, the floor a parade of shoes. All day we dress and style these women as they rise into faces of Ibu. You are not an object, I say, as I always say to anyone in front of an Ibu camera, but a subject. I don't want to see a blank slate in these images; I want to see you. You, radiating your irrepressible light on behalf of all of the women of the world.
And look! See the joy. The spirit. The sovereignty in each face. This band of women, braiding our worlds together, celebrating our many tribes, elevating each—this is Ibu. In a world that seems to be tearing apart at the seams, women still go the distance to bind, mend, secure . . . and create anew. This is the reason for all I do.
All the Best,