Martina Bacigalupo was on assignment for the United Nations in Burundi when she heard about a woman whose brother-in-law had amputated both of her arms because she had given birth to a girl instead of a boy.
The story stuck with Bacigalupo. She approached the woman, Francine, one Sunday morning after Mass at the Association for the Rights of Women in Bujumbura. They started meeting on a regular basis and eventually Bacigalupo asked Francine if she’d be willing to collaborate on a photography series about her life.
“I didn’t want to show her drama but rather her daily life, which of course included the drama but was not limited to it,” Bacigalupo said.
Soon, Bacigalupo was introduced to Francine’s daughter, Bella. That meeting proved to be significant: It helped Bacigalupo view Francine through her daughter’s eyes while they were working on creating images.
She saw her as “a woman with different arms as opposed to a woman with amputated arms. The difference is fundamental: to Bella’s eyes the concept of ‘handicap’ or ‘victim’ did not exist.”
Bacigalupo named the series after the Kirundi word for angel: umumalayika. She feels it represents the artistic interpretation of their vision. “Francine transforms to Bella’s eyes, and therefore to our eyes, from an amputated woman, a victim, a dependent being, into a woman with wings, free, able to do everything, and even more,” she said.
“I was trying to move away from a certain kind of photography that depicts Africa always as a dark land of brutality, barbarism, war, and ignorance. I choose a story that was affirming that assumption and yet I was questioning it. In fact, at the end, it was the simple story of the relation between a mother and her child.”
Bacigalupo then collaborated with the Mozambican artist Magule Wango who was living in Burundi at the time and is known for his mixed media art. Using Bacigalupo’s black-and-white images as a starting point, Wango then painted fantastical, colorful imagery over them. Bacigalupo described the final works as having a “naive world of childish reverie where the angel Francine is a powerful being.”
Bacigalupo said that she has always been interested in exploring things through a subjective point of view and that her work has always been more about questioning than denouncing. She prefers to tell stories with her subjects rather than stories of them—working with Francine was an early step in that direction.
“It was the beginning of an in-depth reflection about photojournalism and photography in general, especially western photography in Africa, which is still going on today.”