First Impressions: Contemporary Photography in Nigeria

My first encounter with contemporary Nigerian photography were the works of the Depth of Field collective from Lagos (I think), then exhibited at the South London Gallery – simply great stuff! And then, originally being from Berlin I’m obviously very much aware of Akinbode Akinbiyi’s work. But during my year in Nigeria, my engagement with photography was largely limited to my own shots and the work of commercial photographers at the campus sites of the various universities, and even that less as an art historian but for the sake of memories of good friends …

Anyway, here’s a review of two recent exhibitions in Lagos that was published in Next Magazine (sorry, too many artists mentioned, gave up finding links half-way through). Also, for other reviews Tam Fiofori's article on Alfred Olusegun Fayemi's current solo exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Lagos in Next Magazine, The Nation: Nigeria through their Lenses, and Tajudeen Sowole's Perspective ... Generational Shit of Photography in the Guardian among others ...

First Impressions: Contemporary Photography in Nigeria

Antawan Byrd, 4 October 2009, Next Magazine

On the occasion of two photography shows, I was eager to see the ways in which Nigerian photographers have employed, and continue to employ, photography within a miscellany of genres ranging from art and fashion to documentary and photojournalism.

Both exhibitions opened on Friday, September 25, 2009. These shows, the first at the Ben Enwonwu Foundation’s Omenka Gallery and the latter at the main gallery of the African Artists Foundation, are quite timely in that they collectively reveal that photographers in Nigeria are tenaciously exploring the medium’s dynamic nature and analytic potential.

Yet, both shows, having seen them in tandem, also manage to elucidate key opportunities for improving the caliber and fiber of Nigeria’s contributions to the global realm of contemporary art, particularly concerning photography.

A fractured narrative

We start with the exhibition at the Omenka Gallery. The show seems to disavow any claim to a singular, unified thematic framework.

This is despite the exhibition’s forthright title, A Perspective on Contemporary Nigerian Photography, which intimates that the photographs – though representing the divergent practices – would be organised around a clear curatorial vision, or at least around a perspective.

Whether or not the exhibition satisfied such expectations is a matter open for discussion.

From my perspective, the seemingly arbitrary juxtaposition of the photographs failed to thoroughly highlight the diverse genres in which many of the photographers practise. And maybe this was the point – to avoid the clichéd trope of ghettoising photographers within the limits of genres.

Perhaps the organisers opted for a fractured narrative in order to underscore the ways in which some of the exhibited works, those by Kelechi Amadi-Obi or JD Ojeikere for example, are able to fluctuate on a continuum; being at once both art and documentary as is the case in Ojeikere’s practice, or art and advertising vis-à-vis Amadi-Obi’s practice.

Or, perhaps I have missed the proverbial boat. Recourse to the exhibition’s modest though handsomely produced catalogue didn’t do much to clarify things either.

Tam Fiofori’s introductory text insightfully broached the history and challenges of photography in Nigeria, while also asserting the need for further “recognition, respect and appreciation” of the medium within the country’s art sector; the show, however, fell short in delivering its “panoramic perspective of the work of contemporary Nigerian photographers” in a way that would make such a project palpable.

Ultimately, the exhibition came off as a first-rate ad-hoc celebration of the achievements of some of the country’s preeminent photographers, foremost among them Ojeikere, Fiofori, Jide Adeniyi-Jones and Sunmi Smart-Cole.

It was indeed illuminating to see the work of these photographers juxtaposed with work of a relatively younger generation of practitioners like Adolphus Okpara, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko, and members of the collective, Depth of Field: Uche James-Iroha, Amaize Ojeikere, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, TY Bello, Emeka Okereke and Toyosi Zaynab Odunsi.

Bordering on kitsch

As I navigated the exhibition, I was quite surprised, however, to see that many of the pictures had their titles, dates and signatures inscribed directly on the prints, in some cases handwritten, and in others – as is the case with Lolade Cameron-Cole’s Izola II, 2009 and Izola III, 2009 – printed vertically along the side of the photograph like text on a billboard.

Aside from being distracting, these gestures, in my view, seriously compromises the archival quality of the prints, not to mention their commercial longevity. Several photographers, though, did get it right.

Among them is TY Bello’s poetic and exquisitely printed (sans inscriptions) black and white portraits featuring the likes of Wole Soyinka and Sonny Okosun, which were handsomely hung in unassuming frames that complimented the work’s emotive nature and minimal aesthetic.

Several pictures, like Sunday Ukonumu’s Dancers, featured the use of Photoshop-like textures. Such gestures often seem aimed at upping the art-factor of the photographs; this is not unlike the popular method of printing on canvas.

These technical devices seem to border on kitsch; but their popularity suggests that many Nigerian collectors, with their insatiable preference for painting, also prefer painterly photographs.

Perhaps these artists, and collectors too, might be interested in exploring the practices of other artists – like Kay Hassan, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Tracey Rose – whose photographic work diversely reference the painterly, often abstractly and conceptually, but without being literal.

Another work that stood out for several reasons is Deji Ajose’s, Transition. Apart from being hung low in a precarious afterthought-like manner in a corner near the exhibition’s entrance, this photographic triptych of glowing skull drawings made with light managed to make light painting seem cutting edge in a show dominated by straight documentary (genres aside) photographs.

On curatorial logic

While the exhibition at the Omenka Gallery reveals faults in its curatorial logic, the photography exhibition at the African Artists Foundation, Initial Patterns, offers an analytic perspective on the conventions of photojournalism.

The show is comprised of photographs by Andrew Esiebo, Babasola Bamiro, Folarin Shasanya, Adolphus Opara, Israel Ophori, Eremina Humbo, Toye Gbade, Tuoyo Omagba, Zemaye Okediji, and Godswill Ayemoba, who together represents a new still-in-development artist’s collective/press agency.

The exhibition functions as a visual culmination of the group’s three-week photography workshop led by the Netherlands-based artist Lino Hellings, wherein the artists/journalists took to the streets of Lagos to capture ‘new’ news – photographic documents of local happenings that are premised on offering a fresh perspective on representations of Nigeria in the media.

And while such an endeavour is hardly innovative within the global context of contemporary art, the exhibition itself, with its thoughtful presentation and revealing photographs, signals an interesting departure from other recent photography exhibitions.

First off, the fluent and effortless installation of the work, on the Foundation’s second floor, made the show’s thesis quite legible.

Large prints mounted on easels featured handwritten labels that offered mini-narratives as responses to the work’s subject matter; these prints outlined the gallery’s perimeter, and were accompanied by a large board whereon a multitude of smaller prints were pinned.

While the board and the nearby flowcharts hark back to art school critiques, they also serve as reminder of the exhibition’s genesis as a visual laboratory for analysing and manufacturing images.

These devices essentially exposed the viewer to the blueprint underpinning the exhibition’s construction, and in so doing highlighted the show’s engaging work-in-progress, experimental nature.

Initial Patterns did not promise any perspectives; rather it presented a variety of individual responses to the city of Lagos prompting one to reconsider what qualifies as news.

The strength of this project rests not so much on the quality of the works exhibited, but on its thoughtful and seemingly thoroughly planned presentation.

Here’s to hoping that the collective remains focused and motivated enough to continue experimenting and exploring the potential of manufacturing reality as opposed to simply documenting it.

Form and content

My first impressions of both photography exhibitions are steadfast: one’s strength was the other’s weakness. The exhibition, A Perspective on Contemporary Nigerian Photography missed the much-needed opportunity to analyse and elucidate the aesthetic and generational shifts between contemporary Nigerian photographers.

Despite this, the remarkable quality of much of the work on display remains incontestable and relatively unparalleled.

By comparison, Initial Patterns, with its clear logic and compelling presentation offers a thought-provoking occasion for engagement even if some of the photographs themselves signal room for improvement.

In the end, if the goal is to validate the medium of photography within local contemporary art practices, then it never hurts when form supports content, and content supports form.

Antawan I. Byrd is a US Fulbright fellow and curatorial assistant at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.

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