“Scarred: The Journey of a Warrior,” a photography exhibit at Electriqsoul Hideout Studios in Chicago’s West Loop, highlighted the beauty and bravery of five breast cancer survivors. The show featured photographs by Obi “Obisoulstar” Uwakwe, studio owner and artist. Through the exhibit, the five women bared their scars and stories to raise the curtain on what it truly means to be a breast cancer warrior.
The exhibit was open each weekend throughout October 2021, in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each evening of the show, a different featured warrior photographed for the exhibit was invited to speak about her experience with breast cancer.
Electriqsoul Hideout Studios, which opened in March, is the culmination of Uwakwe’s decade-long dream to have an art gallery and photography studio. The idea for a breast cancer-themed photography exhibit came to Uwakwe while on a hike over the summer, he says. He remembered a friend going through breast cancer a couple of years prior. At the time, he hadn’t been able to find the right words or actions to support his friend through the difficult experience. He now realized that he could use his studio and art as a way to show support.
Uwakwe explains that when he originally researched breast cancer-related images, he found women portrayed as victims, their scars representing damage done to their bodies. Looking at these images, he could only imagine what the emotional and psychological scars must be.
With his photography, Uwakwe says, “I wanted to show art, beauty and power.” He encouraged each warrior in the project to tell her own story and share her experience truthfully. The women featured expose a variety of perspectives on what it’s like to not only receive medical treatment for breast cancer but to go on as a survivor as well.
Featured warrior Susan McKenzie says that by sharing her photos and story in this exhibit, she wants to emphasize that women—especially Black women—are often culturally conditioned to “not give ourselves permission to be sick.” For her, one of the most difficult parts of breast cancer was giving up control and fully accepting support. “We believe that we have to do it all,” she says.
McKenzie recently celebrated 20 years of survivorship. She says that while she didn’t approach the photography project with a specific plan of how her images would look, she took it as an opportunity to celebrate herself and her body. The bright smile shining through one of her portraits certainly conveys this message. A major component of celebrating longevity and resilience in life after cancer is her role as a mother to her 17-year-old daughter, Lauriana. “I often refer to her as my cure,” McKenzie says.
Uwakwe hopes that his photography will spread a greater message that a woman is no less beautiful or powerful after undergoing a mastectomy. It was also important for the women to feel validated and empowered by seeing the images of themselves.
Uwakwe sensed that the general public wasn’t accustomed to seeing post-mastectomy bodies in a powerful light. He wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the women’s strengths and remind them of their own beauty.
Teri Ford, another warrior photographed for the exhibit, has been on a long road of body acceptance after her mastectomy. Until she had a cherry blossom design tattooed over her scars, she says, it was difficult to look in the mirror and see what cancer left behind. Feeling feminine and strong with her new tattoo, Ford believes that Uwakwe’s exhibit provided another step forward for her healing process. “This project was very empowering for me,” Ford shares. “I’m strong and powerful, yet I’m very feminine—and I didn’t lose that through [cancer].”
Ford appreciates that the exhibit is also an opportunity for women to support each other. “This diagnosis showed me the power of women supporting women,” she says. She expresses her gratitude for women coming together in the breast cancer community to share stories and resources. “When you look at all five women in the portraits, everyone exudes strength and beauty simultaneously in their own way,” she adds.
From the artist’s perspective, Uwakwe shares that he has learned from the experience and has a “completely new understanding” of what a woman goes through after a breast cancer diagnosis. Working with warriors also opened his eyes to the overall survivorship experience; breast cancer doesn’t necessarily end when treatment is over. He now sees how breast cancer leaves a permanent mark beyond the physical scars.
Uwakwe’s exhibit also made financial contributions to groups providing support, education and other assistance to women experiencing breast cancer. The featured warriors and Uwakwe selected three beneficiary groups to receive proceeds from the exhibit’s ticket sales. The beneficiaries were Chicago’s Speakeasy Custom Tattoo, a tattoo studio that provides free tattoos to breast cancer warriors; Sisters Working It Out, a Chicago-based breast cancer support group; and Recovery On Water, a rowing team for breast cancer warriors.
Uwakwe expresses that in addition to learning so much from each of the warriors, he now has expanded his community with people who he deeply cares about as they continue on through survivorship and other aspects of their lives. “It’s one of the most fulfilling endeavors I’ve embarked on,” he says.
Obi “Obisoulstar” Uwakwe is a Chicago-based artist and owner of Electriqsoul Hideout Studios. For more info on his future events and exhibits, follow the studio on Instagram at @electriqsoul_hideout_studios.