J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Checheezeagu, 2005, Gelatin silver print. © J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. Image courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris.
UNITED KINGDOM —The death of J.D Okhai Ojeikere, one of Africa’s most celebrated photographers, early this year continues to be felt across the globe. Okhai Ojeikere was not only well-known in Africa, he was also admired across the globe. To remember and pay tribute to the creative excellence of this great Nigerian photographer, exhibitions are been organized by museums and art galleries around the world. One opened recently at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Titled J.D. Okhai Ojeikere: Hairstyles and Headdresses, the Hayward Touring exhibition features series of beautiful images of ornate hairstyles elaborately sculpted by Nigerian hair stylists. Alongside those meticulously rendered hairstyles and designs are architectonic headdresses richly fashioned to be visually bewitching.
Hairstyles and Headdresses brings to the fore Ojeikere’s life-long project that began in the late 60s soon after Nigeria’s independence. The series presents hairstyling as a monumental yet ephemeral art. Many of the hairstyles and headdresses depicted in these images only last for a few days or weeks before they are replaced with other scintillating hairstyle and headdress. Ojeikere’s beautifully composed black and white images not only celebrate Nigerian women, they also reveal their independence and power of expression. The images also provide an extensive visual archive of traditions gradually been eroded by Western way of life.
Abebe, a hairstyle documented in a photography taken in 1975 is an example of the vanishing tradition Ojeikere strove to preserve. Abebe, Yoruba word for fan, is an intricately woven design referencing the traditional Yoruba handheld fan made from straws and raffia. From the woman’s scalp, the well-structured and elaborate hairstyle rises into a beautiful architectonic structure reaching for the skies. The dexterity of the stylist shows that nothing was left to chance in the articulation of this breathtaking skyscraper design.
J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s Hairstyles and Headdresses project began more than 40 years ago. Like many of his contemporaries during the dawn of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Ojeikere believed in the re-propagation of a Nigerian identity that was debased by colonialism and invading Western cultures. He was concerned that some of authentic Nigerian traditions were dying off, and the only way to archive them and keep them in collective memories is through photography. Consequently, Ojeikere’s camera became a tool for archiving that objective.
Although Ojeikere’s documentation of a tradition that was gradually been eroded by colonial ideas began with just a simple idea, it become a lifelong project. From 1968 to his death, Ojeikere passionately captured Hairstyles and Headdresses by travelling across Nigeria, and attending key life events such as weddings, birthdays and other ceremonial events. When he died early this year, he had accumulated more than 1,000 images. His choice of Hairstyles and Headdresses was not an accident. Besides the beauty of the styles and the creativity of their creators, it was clear to Ojeikere that with the introduction of hair stretching devices and hair perm creams, it was a matter of time before the celebrated Hairstyles and Headdresses become extinct.
In archiving Hairstyles and Headdresses, Ojeikere utilized both street and studio photography. Each image is meticulously documented to reveal the nuanced meanings of his subject matter. The significances of the different hairstyles are inherent in the history of the styles. While some hairstyles denote social status, others are integral to family history as they have been handed from one tradition to another. For Ojeikere, preserving the hairstyles was important because they celebrate the uniqueness and reflect the diversity of cultural traditions within Nigeria. He noted that ‘There are hundreds of ethnic groups in Nigeria, each with its own language, traditions and as many different hairstyles… The hairstyles are never exactly the same; each one has its own beauty…’
Onile Gogoro or Akaba 1975, reveals the beauty Ojeikere was talking about. Literarily translated, Onile Gogoro — a Yoruba phrase— simply means “owner of a sky scraper. Made from plastic strings wrapped around the hair to create an architectural structure, the design conveys the painstaking effort of the stylist to create a masterpiece as well as beautify the wearer.
The images of traditional hairstyles and headdresses presently on display at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham show the brilliance of this photographer widely regarded as one of the greatest African photographers of the 20th Century. To bring context and also shape the narratives about the images, each photograph is carefully labeled with the hairstyle’s place of origin, meaning, name and its history. The narrative is a journey through key life experiences and events such as weddings, birthdays, rite of passage and other important ceremonies that gave credence to these images.
Hairstyles and Headdresses is the first major UK exhibition of Ojeikere’s work. Evidently, this is why Hayward Touring is delighted to be working with Art Exchange on this project. Gillian Fox, Curator of the exhibition, Hayward Touring notes:
It is an incredible opportunity for Hayward Touring to exhibit the work of Nigeria’s most beloved photographer and we are delighted to be working with New Art Exchange as our first tour venue. All of the works in the show were painstakingly reprinted from the original negatives, and the richness and physicality of these forms a direct connection to the very moment of their capture. Ojeikere’s original intent may have been a social document but what in fact was produced was an extended love letter to his country and its culture.
Presenting Hairstyles and Headdresses, the series project that earned Ojeikere international acclaim to a wider audience, is a befitting tribute to the amazing photographer. The well-composed images beautifully capture not just the delicately crafted hairstyles, but also how they reflect on the wearer. To engender a deeper understanding, Ojeikere also includes a narrative revealing the origin of the name of the hairstyles. While some hairstyles names were developed to tease and make poignant statements, others styles became known by their nicknames, informed by the geographic area they came from. Some names also reflect the natural and manmade forms they imitated, including pineapples, crabs, suspension bridges or tower blocks.
Since the exhibition opened, it has attracted many art lovers who have projected and brought new meanings to the hairstyles and what role they played in in the context of the Nigerian culture. As expected, this Hairstyles and Headdresses continues to generate much excitement amongst art lovers and photographers. When it was first presented as a part of Southbank Centre’s Women of The World Festival in March 2014, it became the conversational piece among all that visited the show. Women especially could not stop imagining what the hairstyles would look like on them.
Although this exhibition presents Okhai Ojeikere as a great photographer, what is not too clear from the show is that he was also an incredible teacher. Many young Nigerian photographers, including his son Amaize Ojeikere hold their photography career to him. Some of the works by these young photographers were recently on display in the exhibition The Nigerian Centenary Photography Exhibition at Bonhams in London. Like Okhai Ojeikere, many of the young Nigerian photographers have taking up projects of their own. Okhai Ojeikere son, for instance, has been documenting images of Lagos and the colonial implication on the city.
To bring new meaning to Okhai Ojeikere’s work, Hayward Touring exhibition and New Art Exchange commissioned several young local photographers to create works that will directly respond to many of Ojeikere’s works. To create their works, the local artists spent time in and around the numerous barbershops, salons and beauty stores of the Hyson Green region of Nottingham. Based on their observation and interaction with the people in these environments, they developed works based on the people they met. Some of the works include haircuts and hairstyles. Though different from Okhai Ojeikere’s images, the works of these young photographers reflect contemporary cultures and tradition of Hyson Green region of Nottingham.
The images of traditional hairstyles and headdresses presently on display at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham show the brilliance of this photographer widely regarded as one of the greatest African photographers of the 20th Century. It is no doubt a befitting tribute to this famous African photographer who has helped shaped the photography career of many young Nigerian photographers. Born 1930 in Nigeria, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s photography career was dedicated to the preservation of Nigeria’s culture. For 40 years, he travelled across Nigerian attending weddings, birthdays, child naming ceremonies and other important life events, documenting a culture nearing extinction. His dedication to the preservation of Nigerian culture, tenacity and genius as a photographer won him international acclaim. His works have been featured in museum and galleries across the globe, and can be found in a variety of public and private collections. Beyond all the accolades, however, what is most important is that with his work, Ojeikere has helped document important Nigerian culture for future generations.
J.D. Okhai Ojeikere: Hairstyles and Headdresses, on view through January 11, 2015 at the New Art Exchange, Nottingham.