Words by
Kirsten Nagel

Dynamic Duos: Nesra & Samiira Wale

Dynamic Duos profiles friends, business partners, siblings and couples who work together creatively. In this instalment, we speak with Nesra and Samiira Wale - two sisters who are each other’s biggest supporters. Samiira is a rising photography star, who has developed a distinctly editorial style in her portraits that celebrate her heritage. As Samiira’s longtime collaborator and ‘Executive Editor,’ Nesra has transformed her classroom into a professional photography studio on multiple occasions, while cultivating her own talent for makeup artistry. We discussed diversity and representation in the media, making sacrifices, and how working with your sister can sometimes be likened to ‘forced labour.’

"Get a plate kids, I'm serving breakfast, lunch and dinner" - NW Nesra wears our Rebecca Bag in Emerald Croc

Samiira, in front of the camera for a change

The Wale sisters are chalk and cheese: Nesra is the outspoken and pragmatic younger sister, while Samiira is the creative and introverted old soul. Nesra cry-laughs at her own jokes, loves adventure and is decidedly bossy. Samiira is afraid of heights, loves to read and is softly spoken. “We’re like Batman and Robin - Samiira’s a superstar. She’s extremely talented and I’m just her handy sidekick that tags along really,” explains Nesra during our interview from their Hamilton home. This is where their family settled after emigrating from Somalia twenty years ago. Samiira, formerly a librarian, is now a full-time carer for their mother, while Nesra is a primary school teacher. Outside of their noble day jobs, Samiira is a budding photographer who dabbles in makeup artistry and styling, with Nesra as her part time model, frequent set assistant and number one cheerleader. I discovered the dynamic sister duo on Instagram through a shoot of Nesra modelling an Emerald Croc Rebecca Bag and a white leather hijab - created, styled and photographed by Samiira herself.

Despite their myriad differences, the sisters share both a mutual respect for one another, and the title of Rihanna’s Biggest Fans. Nesra, whose Instagram bio describes her as ‘the unofficial face of Fenty Beauty,’ expresses that she only recently became interested in makeup because it was never something that catered to their skin tones. Then in 2017, Rihanna released 41 foundation shades in her debut Fenty Beauty collection and featured then-unknown Somali model Halima Aden in the campaign. “[Rihanna] gave her this platform so we thought if those girls can do that anywhere, there’s no reason we can’t do that here from New Zealand as well,” Samiira notes. That initial Fenty campaign inspired the sisters to dream big, and was the catalyst for a more diverse representation in makeup shades - a change they are happy to see evolving.

Samiira had been illustrating for over a decade, incorporating aspects of Somali culture into her works. She then realised she could influence change in the wider fashion industry through photography. Her new purpose was driven by a desire to get more faces and body shapes that look like herself and Nesra into the main, as well as challenging misconceptions around Islam. “Often people see that you’re a Muslim and assume that fashion is not a choice for you, but we’re interested in how we can incorporate modesty and fashion, through makeup and accessories, while still respecting our religion and culture.”

I chatted to Nesra and Samiira about creative influences, having confidence, and the highs and lows of working together as sisters.

“[Rihanna] gave her this platform so we thought if those girls can do that anywhere, there’s no reason we can’t do that here from New Zealand as well”

"Fun fact: this isn't a photo, this is my fave artwork by Samiira. Culture meets creativity #VivaSomalia" - NW

"big on blush; we shot this when our Fenty blush order arrived. A lot of fun was had that day" - NW

"We own like 200 hijabs between us, but we're almost always wearing black" - NW

"Every immigrant kid has a picture like this, I don't even gotta explain" - NW

Q.

Who are your favourite photographers, stylists and creatives that you look to for inspiration?

A.

SW: So many. I like Hugo Comte for his heavily stylised vision of fashion; Edward Enninful - the editor-in-chief of the biggest magazine (Vogue UK) and he’s a Black man. Everything is changing and I’m starting to see a lot more faces that look like us. Tyler Mitchell - he did a Vogue cover, he’s only a year older than me. He just got into the door and made it happen. There are a lot of people right now that are driving me to do my best.
NW: I’m just waiting for Rihanna to make me her model. ~crosses fingers~

Q.

To what extent does your background inform your craft and your dynamic of working together?

A.

SW: I feel like the confidence to be who you are has been instilled in us from an early age. Even when we started at primary [school], twenty years ago in Hamilton there weren’t that many Black people. There weren’t that many Somali girls in hijabs so we stood out. You had to be confident in who you were - I’m Black, I wear a hijab, I don’t even speak the language yet. But you just have to be confident and know that you’re going to get there and that you are who you are. That’s the biggest thing that’s shaped us. I see other people and I think we were lucky in a way that we were different, because we had to learn to be comfortable in ourselves and that drives everything we do. We’re just happy and comfortable with who we are.
NW: And having a culture and strong sense of identity makes our shoots a lot more exciting. We’re recreating looks that our grandmothers wore and incorporating things from this generation, like matching our makeup looks to [traditional] outfits.
SW: When you’re Somali, you have this whole history behind you.
NW: Religion-wise it’s very interesting. Some shoots I might have my hair out and other times I don’t, and that just depends on how I’m feeling to be honest - religion is a choice at the end of the day, so sometimes I feel more modest than other days and I think that’s something people get confused about. I would never claim to be the face of Islam or represent everyone that follows the religion, but I’m doing it my way based on what I believe in and opening the discussion for other people as well.

"I see other people and I think we were lucky in a way that we were different, because we had to learn to be comfortable in ourselves and that drives everything we do. We’re just happy and comfortable with who we are." - SW

"I love this shoot. It was inspired by how our hooyo would dress us for photographs or special occasions. Sometimes when I see an outfit that would read '80s office lady' or 'grandma's church clothes' to some, it just reminds me of my 6th birthday. (model: @kiki_mo3)" - NW

"A recent photo from Samiira's latest shoot (model: @bontle_20); this is the shoot that had me questioning my assistant role" - NW

Q.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered when working together?

A.

SW: It has been smooth sailing - we’ve been practising our whole lives so we know our limits with each other. She knows at the end of the day that this is my thing and I get the last say.

Q.

Do you think this is a unique feature of working closely with someone you grew up with?

A.

NW: If we’re doing a photoshoot, we’re not sisters - we’re professionals. I have to do what she says. I can’t bicker or argue with her. No matter if I disagree with her, she’s the older one so I have to kind of follow her lead...and then later say ‘I told you so’ because I’m bossy.

Q.

You were telling me earlier about making the decision to not attend university at the same time, for the sake of being able to support your family. How do you balance your daily lives with your creative endeavours?

A.

NW: When I went to uni to become a teacher, it’s like my life came first and now it’s Samiira’s turn to shine so the other day I was up at 4am getting one of the sets ready and I was like ‘fuck this shit.’ But I have to do it because when it was my turn, she was there for me as well.
SW: It’s been like that our whole lives. We’ve always been willing to sacrifice for each other and do what we need to do to help the other get to where they need to go.
NW: Having a disabled mother, life has taught us that. When we were teens, we both wanted to go out with our friends and travel but we have had to constantly compromise and sacrifice. We’ve got it down to a fine dance now.

"Did I lie tho!? Circa '03 we were still rocking those black hijabs" - NW

"Our biggest inspiration is our mum. She was such a badass & a style icon. She did everything with so much pride and confidence, you couldn't ignore it" - NW

Q.

What about some of the highlights of working together? What’s your favourite thing about collaborating together?

A.

SW: My favourite thing about working together is that I never have to question anything because I know she’s gonna come through, I know she’s gonna be there and have a good attitude. I know we’re gonna finish when I say we’re gonna finish - it’s just the knowing.
NW: (laughs) What she’s describing is forced labour.
SW: It’s just that we can count on each other and it’s always going to be a good time.
NW: I would never model for anyone but Samiira, it would be scary. We just get each other; she does my face really well and I’m not the skinniest person but she knows what works with my body as well.
SW: I don’t care about anything like that. I feel like anyone can look beautiful if you shoot them well and can get them across on camera.
NW: Also seeing someone who you’ve seen grow and realise something they’ve dreamed of for a while - them saying ‘do you know what, there’s not a space for me so I’m going to make space. I’m not going to wait for anybody to hand me anything. I’m going to make it happen for myself.’ With social media it’s cool that you can do that - like you can be in a classroom in little old Hamilton but you can make it look like the most professional photoshoot ever.
SW: That’s our whole lives. Everything we have we’ve just made it happen.
NW: No matter who you are, whether you’re in Tokoroa or Hamilton, just do you.
SW:And if there’s nobody that looks like you doing it, just do it for yourself because you’ll be that person that did it for someone else.

Check out Nesra and Samiira’s impressive oeuvre at samiirawali.com and via their Instagrams @nesra_wale & @samiira.wali