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Hamilton twin models make it big with a portrait 21 metres tall in downtown Toronto

Brothers Uwakmfonabasi and Mokutimabasi Nyong say moving to Hamilton in 2017 was “the best thing” that happened to them.

The 21-year-olds — also known as Whak and Mo — say that it was while attending Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School that they decided they wanted to pursue a career in modelling.

Fast forward to 2021 and a portrait of the identical twins was unveiled this past weekend in downtown Toronto — a 21-metre-tall art installation at 330 Bay St., part of ArtworxTO: Toronto’s Year of Public Art 2021-2022. The photograph features the two brothers, alongside fellow model Angaer Arop and was taken by Toronto-based photographer Jorian Charlton.

“To me that just means everything,” Mo told CBC Hamilton.

“When kids that look like me see someone that looks like them 70 feet tall, plus how striking that image is, like I want it to show them that they could do anything, make them say, ‘Oh, that guy looks just like me, so if he can fly, I can fly.'”

The portrait featuring Hamilton models Whak and Mo is 21-metres-tall and was unveiled in Toronto as part of ArtworxTO. (Submitted by Norm Li/Whak and Mo)

Mo said the photo was one of the first they did after signing with modelling agency NEXT Canada in October 2020.

Whak and Mo said it took a lot of hard work and a lot of people telling them “no” before they got to this point in their career.

The brothers first moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2015, calling Mississauga home for two years before relocating to Hamilton.

Mo recalled that they weren’t popular kids in high school. 

“We were, like, in the middle, I would say the transition between the popular kids and the kids who were not popular,” he said.

How it all started

Whak said after they moved to Hamilton one of their cousins got a camera for her birthday and they started shooting photos in their backyard.

“We’d just go out and take photos. We’d post these photos on Instagram and people in school always like them,” Whak said.

“We were just having fun … but we realized people liked them [and] we were doing it for fun anyway so we just kept doing it. And then photographers in the city started reaching out to do photos.”

He said they got their first modelling gig at a Supercrawl event, the same year they moved to Hamilton.

Whak and Mo moved to Hamilton in 2017 and were signed with NEXT Canada in 2020. (Submitted by Whak and Mo.)

But 2017 also brought them some disappointments.

“We went to Toronto in 2017 and went to a bunch of modelling agencies and they all said ‘no,'” Mo recalled. 

“But we’re models, so we just kept going.”

Whak said they are trying to “bring representation as Black people doing modelling. We want to make people understand that it is an actual skill, not just like a pretty face.”

“I feel like we bring craftsmanship to the modelling because in my opinion, it’s a craft, it’s an art form, kinda like painting, or I feel it’s like acting [but] even more difficult because I have to convey these messages but just in a photo. To be able to pose your body in a way to convey an emotion to someone looking at a photo is a skill and I feel like that skill should be respected more,” he said.

Their message to young people is to keep going. 

“Never stop, just believe in yourself, believe in your ideas and what you’re doing and keep going,” Whak said. 

To be able to pose your body in a way to convey an emotion… is a skill and I feel like that skill should be respected more.– Whak Nyong

“One thing could change your life but then that one comes from the accumulation of all the ones that didn’t work but you just need one so keep going.”

Meanwhile, Mo said he wants young people to just be persistent. 

“Whatever you feel like you are put here to do, just do it with good intentions,” Mo said. 

“People will try to put their own fears and insecurities on you,” he said, adding that this is something that they both had to deal with.

Always drawn back to Hamilton

The brothers say they hope to visit New York to “further their modelling career” and be part of New York fashion week.

They also plan to open a creative consulting business to work with local brands in Hamilton and elsewhere to help bring their ideas to life.

But they do not plan to leave the city anytime soon.

“Yes we do leave Hamilton for a while but I do feel like even in the grand scheme of things we go out to spread the message but we always come back,” Whak said.

Mo, on the other hand, said, “the joke that I always make is that if the mayor of Hamilton [Fred Eisenberger] understands what we are doing for him, he will fund us.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.  You can read more stories here.


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