Amaize Ojeikere , Cathedral Church of Christ IIÔÇÖ, shows the growth of photography in Nigeria. Image courtesy of Bonhams
ART REVIEW: The Nigerian Centenary Photography Exhibition, on view at Bonhams reveals the history of colonialism and photography
LONDON — An exhibition of photography celebrating Nigeria’s centenary has opened at Bonhams in London. The astonishing collection of photographs showcases Nigeria’s rich and diverse cultural heritage captured in the most vivid colors. Featuring images from the colonial past to the present, this exhibition takes viewers on a historic journey, revealing the changing landscapes, individuals, events and technology that have helped shaped that history.
The colonial history of Nigeria is rich with intrigues. Emerging from the amalgamation of diverse kingdoms, emirates, chieftaincies and other communities, Nigeria’s journey to nation state was defined by oppressive rule and epistemic violence. Besides the forceful insertion of Christianity that denigrated traditional religions, every effort was made by the British colonialists to subjugate the “Other.” For the colonialists, Nigeria was the heart of darkness that must be purified by superior civilized colonialists.
The hegemonic power of the British colonialists has been adequately documented by historians. Many scholars have articulated the binary power relationship entrenched by the British, as well as the subjugation of established traditions and culture. Although the photographs in this exhibition do not adequately present the struggles of Nigerians for emancipation from the colonialists, they reveal how colonialism shaped Nigeria’s political landscape and culture of the different groups.
Curated by Ayo Adeyinka, founder and principal consultant at TAFETA and co-curated by Charles Gore, Senior Lecturer in the History of African Art at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), The Nigerian Centenary Photography Exhibition highlights the history of photography in Nigeria through the past ten decades. The focus of the show includes urban living, life and water, music and singers, buildings, vessels and vehicles and people and power. Together they reveal an intriguing view of an emerging country and its people.
The vastness of the colony now known as Nigeria made ruling a daunting task for the British. To effectively rule, the British solicited the help of the indigenes upon whom they depended. A section of the exhibition was devoted to these people. Photographs in this section include portraits of Mohammed Shitta Bey, the foremost palm oil trader of the Delta and head of the Muslim community; Prince Oyekan of the Oba of Lagos; and Otunba Payne, first Lagos High Court registrar and a member of the ljebu Ode royal family. These important African members of Lagos society helped the British effectively control Lagos.
N.W Holm’s Chief Loree in Lagos, a photograph of a Lagos chief taken around 1910,takes viewers back to the 19th century, a period when photography was becoming an important tool for documenting wealth as well as a sense of style. Lagos, which was becoming the pre-eminent cosmopolitan metropolis of West Africa, was one of the major centers of this development. Chief Loree in Lagos by N.W Holm’s presents a man and his wife. This image is very revealing as it shows Western influences on the culture of Nigeria and gender relationship during this period. While the scantily dressed woman sits in a chair, the fully dressed man stands behind her with his left hand on the chair, a gesture of power. Above them is an umbrella. Whereas the woman is dressed in a traditional attire, the man displays a confluence of Western and traditional influence in his dressing. On top of his traditional George wrapper is a jacket in the style of colonial masters. This is matched with a straw hat, beads and walking stick.
N.W Holm’s image of Chief Loree in Lagos exemplifies the impact of the colonialists on the cultural identity of the colonized. The impact of that cultural interaction between the British and the colonized is further accentuated in J.A Green’s Bakana, a black and white photograph of an old black man with a large white beard. Dressed in a tunic with large squares, the man has on his head a cap decorated with feathers, wools and cotton in the style of the colonialists. Bakana, who has been described as the leader of Kalabari Ethnic group of the greater Ijaw tribe during the colonial era, sits on tricycle. In addition to the opulence revealed though his ceremonial attire, the Bakana shows-off his wealth with the tricycle, a Western invention. This was the power of photography during the colonial period.
The Struggle for independence from the colonialist was fierce. At the head of the fight were Nigerians who had acquired Western education, and were ready to take leadership of their country. When emancipation eventually came in 1960, there was celebration across the land. The joy of liberation was captured by many photographers including Fosa and Olojo, whose images evoke a sense of liberation.
It is fitting that this show was used to honor the memory of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. Ojeikere who died recently can be considered one of the fathers of contemporary Nigerian photography. But more importantly, he was one of the photographers who helped shaped the history of photography in independent Nigeria. Born in 1930, Ojeikere began showing interest in photography as a young boy. After years ofworking at the West African Publicity Agency, Ojeikere opened his own photography studio.He called it “Foto Ojeikere”. From then on Ojeikere, who had become a member of the Nigeria Art Council, became even more devoted to documenting Nigerian culture. Till the end of his life, that was his preoccupation. Included in the show are some of Ojeikere’s signature images, including those showcasing the hair styles and headgears of Nigerian women.
Eulogizing the memory of Ojeikere, Kola Aluko Foundation, a supporter of the exhibition, notes that: “This unique collection of photographs charts the developments in photography as an artistic practice in Nigeria. Ojeikere, who died earlier this year and to whom this exhibition is dedicated, is an inspiration to all Nigerians and Africans. As the father of modern Nigerian photography he tells Nigeria’s proud story, showcasing our rich cultural heritage to the world. He is a Nigerian leader who continues to this day to motivate and influence others.”
Giles Peppiatt, Director of Contemporary African Art at Bonhams, explained that: “As our sales of contemporary African Art have gained recognition and set new world records for the artists of this huge and vital continent, we have increasingly come to appreciate the influence of this groundbreaking photographer. The exhibition of these diverse images by those who both preceded Ojeikere and those who inherited his mantle, is a fitting tribute to the best tradition of artistic dedication that captures and celebrates the spirit of Nigeria – Africa’s leading economy – in its Centenary Year.”
The photography careers of some of the young photographers in this show were nurtured by the likes of Ojeikere, whose death continues to be felt across the art world. Ojeikere influenced a lot of young photographers, including Amaize Ojeikere, his second son. For years, Ojeikere took his son through the rudiments of photography, showing him photography tips that have helped shaped his photography career.
Following in the path of his father, Amaize has done studies around Lagos, focusing on the crowded city. This art project-a photographic narrative- shows not just the dangerous and chaotic intricacies of life on the street of Lagos but also explicate poverty in a rich country like Nigeria. One of Amaize’s works in the exhibition is Cathedral Church of Christ IIÔÇÖ. The photograph captures the Cathedral Church of Christ, one of the major breathtaking monuments in Lagos. The gorgeous white church stands against a blue sky with a cloud hovering above. Around the church are Lagosians walking through the streets. In a corner of the streets are the famous Okada transports waiting for passengers. The church which is now the center of worship for many Lagos Catholics is an icon of colonialism. The idea for the construction of the church dates to 1900s when a proposal for the church was first presented. Decades after, the church continues to exert so much influence not just on the landscape but also the identity of Lagosians.
Akintunde Akinleye is one of the young photographers featured in this exhibition. A celebrated Nigerian photographer, Akinleye’s works have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the globe. His works have also been featured in major newspapers and magazine around the world. One of his contributions to the show is titled Fireman. It captures a fireman dowsing himself with water in a chaotic fire zone. Behind him is a burnt truck and an engulfing flame. This image epitomizes Akinleye’s career as a photo journalist and documentary photographer. As a photo journalist, Akinleye has travelled to many dangerous zones, capturing heart rendering images of disasters. Although it is uncertain where this image was taken, it brings to bear the dangers firefighters face anywhere in the world, especially in underdeveloped countries.
Although a contemporary image, Fireman bares a history of turbulence in Lagos during the 19th century. From the struggle for emaciation to political rivalry, Lagos was plagued by fires set by rivals in the effort to punish adversaries. Of course some of the fire were just accidental. But since the fire engine was only available for use for colonial emergencies, many communities burned down. The colonialists, in their infinite wisdom, locked up the fire engine, making them unavailable to the community at large. Overtaken by the events, Lagos newspapers in 1880 launched a campaign to train a crew of Lagosian firemen to operate the engine for the benefit of the entire city. The firemen became instant celebrities, and their exploits became a focus of local pride and photography.
The Nigerian Centenary Photography Exhibition not only allows an insight into Nigeria’s political history but also how photography has helped document that history. From the colonial era to the present, viewers are taking on a historic trip, revealing how colonialism influenced and shaped Nigeria’s cultural identity. In Obafemi Luther’s portraits, we see how Lagosians are merging Western and traditional culture. This hybridized style, evident in the photographs of fashionable entourage of young Lagos men walking across Five Cowrie Creek Bridge between Victoria Island and Ikoyi, shows the formation of a new identity. From the 19th century to the present, it is clear that Nigerian photography has flourishing and will continue to do so as an art form. Many young photographers are not only gaining recognition in photography exhibitions across the globe, their works are also fetching great prices at art auctions.