Mfon Essien processed Black magic. She aimed and clicked and captured images, the sound of her camera sending out a drumbeat of celebration. Like an ancient priestess, an obeah woman, a queen mother, she combined elements -- paper and mysterious liquids -- in the dark. She developed power. When she shot, she generated life. And when life tried to assault her, she shot back and made herself eternal.
Born in Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria, and raised in Baltimore, Mfon moved to New York in the early 1990's and joined the ranks of the sought-after young artists with style and verve -- shooting fine art and fashion spreads. Her signature elegance shone in the city's dynamic mix of bright Black talent.
Perhaps if this gifted photographer hadn't been so petite, so young, so glowingly healthy-looking, doctors would have caught her cancer earlier. For six months, physicians told Mfon the lump in her breast was only a cyst, that at 31 she was too young to have breast cancer; that she would be wasting time and taxpayers' money to undergo expensive tests. But in 1998 she learned that the lump in her left breast was indeed cancerous. Mfon did not lose more time lamenting the fact that she didn't have health insurance, that those six months might have made a difference.
She underwent a radical mastectomy -- and then she continued to work, Her soul force continued to shine. She signed up for the 2000 Revlon Run/Walk for Women -- one week after cancer-related complications left her temporarily paralyzed. She insisted on victory.
Her friends insisted on it for her. When money ran dangerously low, and her body could no longer sustain the rigors of work, her community pooled its resources to help her. Leading photographers, some of whom had never met Mfon, donated work to a silent auction to help raise funds for her treatment.
She bravely faced her own camera. She chose to reclaim her body through The Amazon's New Clothes, a series of nude self-portraits, arresting images of a Black woman feeling her own power. The photographs exalt womanhood, representing Mfon in all her triumph, in all her truth. Through them, she reaffirms her innate grace, refusing to allow a scar to define her. Poised and relaxed, Mfon glories in her body, fiercely asserting her own life force.
Mfon talked about why she decided to document her changing body on film. "There are lots of moments when I have to reclaim myself," she said. "I have to do that on a daily, on a moment-to-moment, basis. That's what the whole series is about: celebrating the moment -- that complete, thorough now. "Who knows? Maybe tomorrow I'll wake up and I'll have all my motor skills back, and I'll be a whole different person. Maybe tomorrow I won't. So why not just completely relish now?"
She did not regain her motor skills. But even in the hospital , during her final days, a light emanated from Mfon. An ebony sheen danced like a halo about her face. Her voice also carried light -- high, poised, beautiful. "I still feel like the Amazon girl, the one that's okay in the Now Moment," she declared. "Yeah, I still feel like that."
On February 14, 2001, just one day before the opening reception for a New York exhibition that featured her Amazon photos, Mfon Essien crossed over and joined the ancestors.
In Efik, the language of her origins, Mfon is short for Mmekutmfon -- "I have seen the goodness of God." She peers through a lens, focusing on herself, on the goodness of the Creator, channeling creative energy, so that now other women may look upon her and know the power of our timeless bodies and understand, without question, that the beauty of the spirit transcends all else.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen ran the 2001 Revlon 5k Run! Walk in honor of Mfon's life and strength -- and to help other women battle breast cancer.
The Amazons New Clothes earned Mfon a 2000 C. Hanks Cosby Fellowship and honorable mention in the competitive American Photo Magazine Photographer of the Year contest. In May 2000, her series was exhibited at the Dak-Art Biennial in Dakar, Senegal. Committed to the Images of Contemporary Black Photographers, exhibited this spring at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, featured selected photographs.
Before her death, Mfon began the groundwork for the ME Foundation, which will help support other women with breast cancer. For more info contact firstname.lastname@example.org.