Moving to New York in 2003, Matthew Usukumah traveled stateside with his mother, brother, and sister to live with his father at the early age of 11. During his formative years, he had lived in the small town of Scarsdale in Westchester. Though it may have taken him longer than he’d realize, he’d envision where his passions in creativity and storytelling would take him.
Before coming to the United States, Matthew lived in a town called Romford in East London. Remembering his heritage, Matthew recalled the shock of experiencing the comparison between his two hometowns of Scarsdale and Romford. His adolescence became unique and experimental in various avenues.
Prior to his inclination with photography, Matthew became involved in music. He talked about how he delved deeper into hip-hop, leading to his ingress within the music industry. Matthew said, “During my teenage years, I was heavily into music. And I would create instrumentals and work with some amateur artists. I wasn’t good at that either, but I was mostly into it because my brother was into music, so it was a way for me to connect with him.”
Usukumah continued, “And then, when I was 16, I was working this summer job and I had to go through hundreds of CD’s. The task was to organize my boss’ CD’s. And this was back in 2008, before Spotify, and that’s when I discovered all kinds of music I’d never heard before: new age, lounge, electronica, I even delved more into rock for a time, and that was really liberating.”
Matthew, who frequently went through the process of synesthesia, discussed his proclivity in visualizing the music that he listened to. This inclination of his was what transpired to his experimentation in entrepreneurship, creating his own brand exploring music in the field of music management, promotion, and concert production.
He talked about his time as president and owner of UltraViolet Music, saying, “If anything it was quite naive actually, running and chasing after something that I knew nothing of. That music group was very important in understanding how I approach how to make a piece of art. I would always encourage the artists I worked with to have a concept, and then, your lyrics will be better, in the way you deliver it, how you flow it. It goes from being just another rap verse to being a song. And I’ve carried that to my work now, where there has to be a story, or otherwise, the meaning is kind of lost.”
One of his notable collections, called the Intangible Series, was gestated back in 2020. Being trapped in his home, Matthew, after attending the shows during Fashion Week, pondered ways to showcase his art without having to photograph people. Looking around his bedroom, he began to explore the nature of immortalization by capturing the moments and objects he felt a sense of sentimentality to and the items he used frequently.
“I noticed that there were some objects I genuinely cared about or the ones I used over and over again. And they have tangible value but they also have intangible value too. It was me exploring that in a way,” explained Usukumah. “It was also an exercise of being extremely vulnerable, truly vulnerable for the first time in my art form. Street style doesn’t allow you to do that, because you’re taking pictures of something that is out there, that’s on the external. You’re not capturing things on the internal, of how you feel.”
Conferring the ways of how Instagram first came to be, Matthew exclaimed, “Everyone wants to pump something new out all the time. People seem to value a picture of a Starbucks coffee over something that has poetic value. I think some of the best artists have always created art with intent.”
During his past discretions with fashion, Matthew alluded his love for fashion to that of marriage. Initiated into the realm of models and designers at the age of 16, the young photographer would become a denizen of this world, another outlet that began with his brother. The two siblings went on a shopping experience in H&M, Express, and Club Monaco, with Usukumah favoring Club Monaco over the other two.
He expressed, “It was really liberating to have control over my appearance, and this was in high school, there’s so much societal pressure to just conform there that it was odd. I always had people coming up to me where people would ask me, ‘why are you wearing a scarf’ or ‘why are you cuffing your pants’ replying, ‘because I want to’, that was the few times in my life where I’d use that as an excuse. I’ve always people-pleased to a degree, but with fashion, it was never the case.”
Although Matthew reminisced the enfranchised qualities of fashion, he also spoke about the lows of this union. As someone who is ardent in the ways of emotion and narrative, Usukumah despised that fashion’s advertisements were devoid of meaning, clarifying, “Some of the best advertisements are very creative and have a purpose,” admiring the work of Rick Owens, he said, “that guy is a genius, whether it comes to creating something dramatically new, pushing forward the gothic clothing genre, or just his advertisements, which are just shocking, that’s art, because it makes you feel something.” Matthew described the blandness, diversity issues, and the vanity of the industry.
Working for V Man Magazine covering Paris Men’s Fashion Week in 2020 and covering the one in Milan during the same timeframe, Matthew had many ordeals to overcome. Experiencing hurdles and struggles in regards to race, Matthew had a lot of trouble stepping his foot in the door for major publications.
He said, “As a black photographer, we do not get paid that much compared to our white counterparts, and that is very frustrating, to know that we can do the same thing, that our work is devalued because some guy just doesn’t want to pay us.” Usukumah talked about how certain mediums would impede the creative process.
A duality within his art form, Matthew construes his photography with ‘vulnerability’, and as a traveler of many industries, he strives to shape and create works that reflect his own identity and the chronicling of his inner sense of self. Acclaimed with the Best Rising Artist award at NYC’s Art Expo in 2021, Matthew Usukumah is an artist and explorer, prepared to climb even higher echelons for days to come.