Feature | Tobias Ross-Southall exhibits 'Mamas of Zanzibar' piece Feature | Tobias Ross-Southall exhibits 'Mamas of Zanzibar' piece

Feature | Tobias Ross-Southall exhibits 'Mamas of Zanzibar' piece

Tobias Ross-Southall is an award-winning British artist and filmmaker based in London.

Whether it's working with the likes of Conor McGregor, the Spice Girls, Ruth Wilson or seaweed farmers, he brings an instinctive flair and creative freedom to his projects, with a particular passion for authenticity and strong storytelling.

As a video and installation artist, painter and photographer, he has exhibited in the UK and internationally.

During the pandemic, Toby travelled to Zanzibar to spend time with the seaweed farmers in Paje.

To see the photos and our Q&A with Toby, read below.

How did the project come about?

I went to Zanzibar initially for three weeks in January 2021 and ended up staying for five months. The world was shut and it was a very free and open place to be during the confusing chaos of the global pandemic. I swam in the sea at sunrise and the beach was always empty. But I started noticing a few silhouettes of women dotted about on the horizon, wading through the shallows, their dresses and headscarfs trailing in the wind behind them. It was one of the most beautiful and serene moments I’d ever seen.

What was it about this project which interested you so much?

Seeing the strength and determination of these women on a daily basis was inspiring. They moved so silently and swiftly. These seaweed farms were up against the ever-changing elements; the farmers would tend to them, picking up the fallen spiked plants and thrusting them back into the sand to battle another day's tide.

Was there anything which surprised you when you were in Zanzibar?

I was there during the height of the pandemic and the country was a so-called red zone on paper, yet there was hardly any sign of covid. Raves with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, took place on this little island. It felt like a strange end-of-the-world disco, a pilgrimage to escape the constraints of government rules and restrictions.

Was there a particular message you were looking to portray through your images?

I wanted to capture the humbling nature of these women. Also the idea of utilising such a sustainable and natural material seems like a very wise choice at the moment. Coastal ecosystems are the elephant in the room when it comes to achieving carbon neutrality — they can sequester up to twenty times more carbon per acre than land forests. We need to implement new ways we can grow, farm and survive if we are to protect this world.

How open were the ‘Mamas’ in telling their story and being part of your project?

The Mamas were so warm and welcoming. One of my favourite shots is of Maua, who was plucking sea urchins from the seabed and tossing them aside, until she stumbled across a huge one and held it close to her face, totally transfixed. A truly natural moment between her and the urchin.

What’s next for Tobias Ross-Southall?

I’m currently working on a residency program in Cholula, Mexico, creating a series of paintings on traditional, handmade ámate paper (the techniques of which date back to the Aztec times). They say the paper has magical healing powers, which shamans use to perform rituals with. I’ll also make an accompanying film and a photography series.

To see films from Toby, click here.

To see more of Toby's work, you can see his website here.