By Anote Ajeluorou
LOVERS of visual arts in the photography genre were treated to a pulsating night of photographic experience when four alumni of The Nlele Institute presented their works at ArtTwentyOne gallery at Eko Hotels and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos. It was at the closing ceremony of the photography exhibition of German’s Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Fragile’. The show saw the collaboration of Goethe-Institut Nigeria, Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and The Nlele Institute that trains professional photographers. The four students of The Nlele Institute that showed their works included Chidinma Nnorom, Kayode Oluwa, Lolade Lawal, and Neec Nonso.
The themes the four photographers treat in their works are as varied as their personalities that range from personal family history to contemporary and physical cum spiritual ones. Nonso titled his photographs ‘From the Mundane to the Spiritual,’ Lawal dealt with ‘Love Yours,’ Nnorom treated ‘Fragments of Being and Belonging,’ and Oluwa dwelt on ‘Shadow Boxers.’
Head of Special Projects and Programmes, Obasola Bamigbola said The Nlele Institute that was established in 2012 has been training photography artists on “how they can become better in their career to international standard, with a lot of the alumni and mentees making the institute proud.” He said since inception, the institute has had partnerships with Goethe-Institute Nigeria in the training of Nigerian photographers, adding that the Tillmans’ exhibition offered yet another opportunity to partner with Goethe to conduct a workshop for 20 photographers out of which four exhibited their works before the audience, with the institute’s Director, Uche Okpa-Iroha as facilitator.
Nnorom (‘Fragments of Being and Belonging’) said she is concerned about fragility and the architecture of spaces, adding that her inspiration came from her father who has the habit of keeping old things (electronics, clothing, gadgets and old newspapers) and never letting go. A Chinese artist whose works, though dark, deal with family relationships and how they survive even in difficult times like the brutal revolution that Chairman Mao Tse-tung led, Nnorom said, has also influenced her work.
“I started building ‘Fragments of Being and Belonging’ from the archives of my dad by just knocking things together like old TV, old boiling rings and so many things,” Nnorom said. “My dad said those things hold a lot of memory for him, and he refused to let them go. So I started navigating the historical aspects of some of the materials. I found it interesting that the information they contain – the old newspapers, photographs – are quite deep and I couldn’t exhaust them all in ‘Fragments of Being and Belonging.’ He has to give me some oral literature about them.
“In this project, and through my dad’s archive, I was taken through a journey of cultural and political space during the 1970s, and how it affected the family’s cultural lifestyle. I wanted to engage the dynamism of authenticity through the socio-cultural concept of family and community and the importance of belonging to the community. In most of the images, I put myself in that space as a way to connect to that past and also to relate it to the present. In real fact, history is never stagnant; it keeps revolving, and this is my own way of connecting to my history. And I also used a lot of layers of textures of fabrics and textiles that existed back then. These patterns were common and he kept them together as a unit and family.
“Through this project, I wanted to create a discourse around the importance of belonging to the community or a family and the importance of being loved and to be loved. It was novel creating new narratives and realities from these images that my dad had.
“And to say that they are also very fragmented and fragile in relating them to Tillmans’ works that probe into the banality and fragility of life and also explores the notion of community and belonging in most of his images. There’s this beauty of belonging and community, not just in terms of humans, but non-living things as well.”
Nnorom also relates her work with Tillmans’ in their everyday, common subjects that show banality and vulnerability in the materials he uses that are not framed most of the time, but just hanging there to show how vulnerable they are. She added that her dad also showed how fragile and vulnerable life is by defacing his photographs any time anyone in them dies by writing RIP on the person, a practice she has tried to discourage him from without success, adding also that such act of defacement serves as a place of memory for him.
She concluded thus, “At the end of the day, community is important; belonging to a family or community is important in spite of the banal and fragile span of life.”
For Oluwa (‘Shadow Boxers’), combat sport like boxing is the all-time vogue and one to beat in spite of the fact that football is the number one game Nigerians love, noting wryly that everybody doesn’t have to like football. He said although he didn’t know any better what else to do with his photographs in the early days, all he wanted was to just photograph combat sports in whatever guise it came. His close up, grainy images of boxers that leap at the viewer from the canvass are so vivid and magnificent in exploring the depth of endurance boxers pugilists have to put up with in their chosen sport.
“I just want to be in that space, to experience what those boxers go through, what those fighters go through,” he said. “Going through the works of Tillmans showed him that one doesn’t have to go the way of a series or go portfolio by portfolio; just dive into your work and keep those images coming and make a collection of it. The most important things is tell your story and let people relate with it. You don’t have to tailor it to the way we’ve seen it or the way we are made to believe. I mean, rules are made to be broken; just go into it, let them digest it; just go into the work and move on from there.”
Oluwa said he has gone beyond photographing boxing but into documenting every combat sports that he comes across. He said he intentionally photographs on 50mm camera range, saying it gives him that grainy feel to tease out the raw emotion of combatants in their brutal sports, adding that he does so, “because I love texture; I want to see the sweat, I want to be able to understand what they go through, why they have do this, why they have to have bruises on their faces, why they chose to box or why they chose to bet on their ram, to say ‘my ram can go four rounds for so-so and so-so amount.”
Oluwa narrated a combat sport he travelled all the way to Enugu to cover among some Fulani families whose young men engage in communal boxing as sport and protection of family honour, as a test of masculine endurance that is also a rite of passage for the young men. No matter how badly bruised a boxer gets, Oluwa said, the more he would box the next day and receive some more bruises on his face.
Lawal (‘Love Yours’) centres her work on her sister-in-law’s pregnancy and photographed her nude, bulging tummy and the images present a visceral feeling, as they expose the vulnerability of a pregnant woman who lumbers around with a protruding tummy. She has a young daughter who also cuddles the bulging tummy who also shares a space in Lawal’s photographs. The woman is in different positions of advanced pregnancy, as captured by Lawal’s probing lens, showing her when she is happy and when she is distress and her vulnerability in that state. Lawal’s images are bold and courageous in the exposition of a pregnant woman, which seemingly resonates with the novel, modern idea of pregnant women having a photoshoot during pregnancy to flaunt the experience to the whole world to see. Indeed, the audience was taken aback in Lawal’s bold photographic narrative that dwells on an intimate moment in the life of an expectant woman.
According to her, “My photographs are centred around my sister-in-law when she was pregnant. I wanted to present her like the usual pregnancy shoot to relate her to a particular moment when she was with her first child. The photos show her in her ordinary moments and the vulnerability that pregnancy also induces in her, and the love between mother and daughter, with the child often rubbing her mum’s big tummy before she goes to bed.”
A Muslim woman donning her hijab, Lawal was taken to task for photographing a naked pregnant woman and thus exposing her in semi-nude forms and exhibiting same in public considering her own Muslim background that frowns at such exposure. She responded by saying that it was a question she was confronted with all the time, adding that her sister-in-law is not a Moslem, having been brought up in a Christian background, which she still retained even after marrying her brother who didn’t compel her to convert to his faith. She said that her sister-in-law’s background possibly allowed her to be freer and to be so exposed.
“She was actually super willing to be photographed,” she added.
For Nonso (‘From the Mundane to the Spiritual’), installation photography is a high art that enables the artist to transcend from the mundane, ordinary (the living) to the exploration of the spiritual sphere (the dead). And he does so superbly, as he took the audience through nerve-racking moments that conjoined the worlds of the living and the dead in the same photographic compositional space. There’s an eerie quality and feeling that Nonso’s works evoke in the viewer, as something only literary art could have done, but which he somehow manages to achieve with a certain professional involvement that sucks the audience into the ambience of his photographs that merge two disparate worlds – the living and the dead.
He’d gone for a boot camp in Ekiti along with other photographers in 2020, and he was to present a work as part of the training requirement. In casting about what to present, he hit the idea on what appeared ordinary, mundane to people in the community – graves of relatives who’d died and been buried around the homes where people still lived, because the idea of a cemetery is alien to them as it is in most parts of Africa which makes for communication between the living and the dead (also known as the ancestors) possible.
Coincidentally, his mother had died a few years back and he thought to re-enact that burial scenario and the aftermath of death, as his own presentation. He got two coffins for the exhibition along with other odds and ends like wrappers and jewellery for his mother’s burial and borrowed pieces of clothing from whoever could oblige him. he turned his mum’s burial into an installation photography art to the awe of some and admiration for others. One coffin represented the burial re-enactment while the second coffin stood for the afterlife to indicate the duality of man’s existence in the here and thereafter.
According to Nonso, “I try to focus on familiar things, simple things, things we see everyday and you can relate to, so that when I present them to you, you feel almost a sense of shock that you haven’t thought of them that way before, and you are tempted to ask ‘is this art?’ like a toilet set, for example, because you’d thinking to yourself, ‘I have this at home. Why is it art?’ Whereas this same piece could appeal to some people who see it as art. If you interrogate it, it might lead you see the deeper value of art in it.
“The concept of banality is having to work with materials around you to create that thing that could elicit curiosity and even awe. The re-enactment of my mum’s burial was my first installation project, and after that I decided to always do installation photography. When people stepped into the exhibition room, I noticed how much their energies were sapped by the spectre of seeing coffins which evoked shock and the fear of death in people.”
Nonso’s idea of interrogating the living and the dead also soon crystalized and he went to town to ask people why they buried people around their homes instead of a cemetery. He then discovered a common practice among the Yoruba of divining the future of a child when he’s born to understand who the child is and what the child’s mission is. This practice would then inform the parents to the sort of name that should be given to the child either to memorialise a long dead relative who’s returned or to recognise the child who had come before in the form of an abiku and treat it accordingly. He said he got to understand the significance of names that end with ‘unde’ and ‘ande’, ‘inde’, as in Babatunde, Yewande, etc from that project.
The talented photographer then went on to interview common town folks, photographed them and himself around his subjects in the same frame to give his subject the ambience of communing with their ancestors with whom he was being photographed to create that contrasting world of the living and the dead in the same frame.
“I tell them it’s like taking a picture of you and your ancestors,” he added.
Nonso’s titles for his photos have a wide range that transcends from the living to the dead or ancestors.
Indeed, the works of the four artists elicited a lot of reactions from the audience members who expressed how the works communicated to them and their understanding of the material world.
Earlier, while welcoming guests to bring Tillmans’ show to a close, the Director of Goethe-Institut Nigeria, Dr. Nadine Siegert, emphasized the importance of the partnerships that Tillmans’ ‘Fragile’ photography exhibition has yielded that involved the Goethe-Institut Nigeria, ArtTwentyOne gallery, Eko Hotel and Suites and The Nlele Institute which had its trainees exhibiting their works to underscore the depth of training and individual styles embodied in the artists’ works. Siegert then paid tribute to Juan Pablo Echeverri who died shortly after leaving Nigeria after he’d helped to install Tillmans’ body of works at ArtTwentyOne gallery. She alluded to Echeverri’s passing as exemplifying the fragility and transience of life as reflected in the title of Tillmans’ works. ‘Fragile.’