Framing the Moment: The independent look of J. D.’Okhai Ojeikere

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This text was originally published for Moments of Beauty* part of the ARS11 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, Finland.

In the early sixties, the actor and musician Jimi Solanke composed the lyrics of Onile-Gogoro for Roy Chicago and his Rhythm Dandies band. Played in clubs and venues throughout the country, the song became a memorable hit of Nigerian highlife music. In architecture, the term was invoked colloquially in the 60s to signify the emergence of multi-storey public and private building projects throughout the country, especially in the southwestern regions of Nigeria. These included Cocoa House in Ibadan, the Independence building gifted to Nigeria by the departing colonial government in 1960 as well as the privately constructed block of flats by the renowned Nigerian accountant, Akintola Williams on Awolowo road in Ikoyi, Lagos. In fashion, Onile-Gogoro was already circulating in popular parlance by the late 1950s as it appropriately described the tall and extravagant head-ties worn by society ladies to parties and various cultural festivities.
Between 1967 and 1975’Okhai Ojeikere took a series of photographs, which he named Onile-Gogoro. The term, derived from the genealogy of the various Suku, or bunch up, hairstyles – Onile-Gogoro, when translated from Yoruba, means to stand tall. As iconic photographs from Ojeikere’s critically acclaimed « Hairstyles » series, the images resonate deeply for the way in which they poetically and reflexively encapsulate the notions of self-determination and transformation that were at the core of a newly independent Nigeria. Onile-Gogoro symbolised the quest for self-betterment, the desire to improve one’s life and its consequent manifestations. In essence it symbolised the’tall’ dreams and aspirations not only of the individual but also of the new nation.
Whilst Jimi Solanke captured the essence of these aspirations through his musical composition, it was through his art that Ojeikere articulated the idea. This manifestation is no more significant than in the vast body of work undertaken by the artist over the past sixty years – an archive that reflects the alacrity and assiduity with which Ojeikere engaged his local context. Although he did not consider or call himself a documentary photographer in the traditional sense, the artist was motivated by the urgent need to capture those fleeting aspects of cultural and social life that defined their particular moment.
However, the presentation of Africa has never been a straightforward pursuit due to earlier images circulated by Western explorers, travellers and anthropologists as well as their use as justification in the colonial project of’civilising’ the’other’. This is precisely what Susan Sontag alludes to in her characterisation of the medium’s inherent, hierarchical qualities: to photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.(1) Considering perceptions conditione by slavery, colonialism and racism, Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor has insightfully traced the trajectory of’Afro-pessimism’ by observing that the act of photographing Africa has often been bound with a certain conflict of vision; between how Africans see their world and how others see that world. (2) This notion of a singular, unidirectional perspective is confounded by, until recently, the absence of research on earlier African practitioners. Nigerian photographers such as J.A Green and George Da Costa had thriving practises in the last decade of the 19th century, which continued in to the early 20th century. (3) Further, the Canadian art historian Erika Nimis has explored the significant number of itinerant Yoruba photographers that navigated the West coast of Africa taking their trade to new areas. (4) The practices of Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé as well as those of South Africans David Goldbatt and Peter Magubane have also received widespread international visibility and dissemination, opening up the possibilities for other voices from the continent. It is within this context of visibility that J.D.’Okhai Ojeikere: Moments of Beauty is conceived.
Ojeikere’s initial venture into the field of photography was not without hesitation as he thought, « a camera would be too expensive. » (5) However, in 1950 he was able acquire a brownie Kodak camera and was taught the rudiments of its operation by his neighbour, Mr Albert Anieke. Before he could start to practice in the town, his stay in Abakaliki was cut short for family reasons. He returned to his hometown of Emai and began his earliest photographic explorations, moving from village to village operating an outdoor studio and taking portrait photographs at weddings, celebrations and other special events.
From the beginning of his career, Ojeikere’s ambition and determination was palpable as he wrote continuously for over two years to the Ministry of Information to employ him as a darkroom assistant. His diligence finally bore fruition in 1954, resulting in his relocation to Ibadan purportedly the largest city in Africa at the time. With improved facilities, Ojeikere developed his skills on the job and gradually his style and interests began to materialise – especially in the personal work that he pursued outside of his day job. By 1955, Ojeikere had started going to the University of Ibadan, the first university in Nigeria founded in 1948, every Sunday to photograph students and university life in general. The images that resulted over the next six years constitute an unprecedented archive that gives insight into the formation of an intellectual class – an indispensable ingredient towards becoming a modern nation. Ojeikere goes beyond the studio setting, street-life and popular culture favoured by his contemporaries such as Keïta and Sidibé, to document an’enlightenment’ project that would impact on the development of the institutional frameworks of the nation. He befriended and followed the students around their campus, getting an insider’s perspective, recording important moments in the lives of individual students as well as collective events such as convocation ceremonies. His images depict the pride of young adults as they pursue in significant numbers their educations to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses and educators. In so doing, he captured an important transitional moment in Nigerian history, of life in Africa in a way that few if any of his contemporaries had done – that of the process of self-actualisation through academic pursuit. Ojeikere unwittingly becomes a documenter, foregrounding his subjects through impeccable framing. In his words, I had a way of composing the picture. (6) The resulting images bear witness to the invention and articulation of a new social self in which individuals have a vision of themselves but also of their place in the world.
This new consciousness also extended to the way one dresses. Although Ojeikere did not consciously focus on fashion as a category, the sartorial resonates through a large portion of his work in light of the way his subjects meticulously prepared themselves to be photographed. In Emai, the villagers put on their Sunday best, many in traditional attires, and occasionally a few showed off their sense of style through western clothes. A classic image taken in Emai is of a man dressed in suit and tie. With a cane to complete the look, the man exudes the confidence of a village dandy. He stands confident, legs slightly astride facing the camera. To add to the occasion, Ojeikere frames the man centrally within the composition and before a backdrop of landscape. The full frontal composition captures the shifting perceptions of individual identity embodying the metamorphosis of the African self from object to subject. This transformation is no more apparent in the thousands of images taken at the Universities of Ibadan and Lagos, as well as in his studio, advertising and commercial work. Many of the students exuded confidence and joy, as is the case of one particular subject donning all white. In this image, the composition of the picture, the whiteness of the clothes and the way the woman’s hands are arranged all suggest less of an improvised posture but rather an innate regality and confidence that extends beyond the edge of the frame. His studio and commercial work shows individuals dressed in the latest fashion, whether it was in their mini-dresses, their well coiffed Afros or their platform heels. These gestures all reflect a keen awareness of styles and modes that were international. Perhaps the most revealing of pictures are to be found in the small collection of images depicting Nigerians dressed in Indian saris, a gesture that highlights the emerging sense of cosmopolitanism. Engaging with these images enables an understanding of the way in which social and cultural transformations characterise Nigerian society and the subjectivity of its inhabitants.
Turning Points: On Culture and Nationalism
Ojeikere’s photographic practice registers several significant shifts, not only in the artist’s life, but perhaps more profoundly – within the life of a nation. His corpus of work enables us to visualise the abstract sentiments, the ebullience and ambivalences, which came with Nigeria’s emergence into an autonomous modern republic. The formation of new social protocols, the blurring of traditional cultural boundaries, and the widespread attempts at establishing a pan-Nigerian identity are among the range of subjects to which the work attests. In this way, the work functions as a visual timeline of the artist’s own subjectivity in capturing turning points in the nation’s history.
A national culture, for Frantz Fanon is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (7) The culture of an individual cannot be separated from that of a group, and the culture of a group cannot be abstracted from that of the whole society. The notion of progress must take all three senses into account at once. Such cohesion is quite palpable in Ojeikere’s work, as he presents essential moments in constructing and maintaining of a collective identity, which has involved assembling and reordering pieces of narratives, beliefs, traditions and histories but also future aims, aspirations and ideals.
By 1961, Ojeikere had left his job as a press photographer at the Ministry of Information, and moved to work at WNTV, the first television station in Africa, as a studio photographer under the producer Steve Rhodes, who was later to become an influential jazz musician. During his short time at the station Ojeikere captures the enthusiasm of a young crew as they used modern technology and mass media to engage with a receptive audience. Ojeikere states that it was just after independence, we were full of ideas and energy. We were going to conquer the world. (8) He photographed cultural programmes as well as chat shows that provided a platform to debate pertinent contemporary issues.
In 1963, Ojeikere was lured to Lagos by the biggest advertising agency Lintas (formerly West African Publicity) as a photographer. It was here that he met the artist Erhabor Emokpae who in 1967 invited him to become a member of the National Arts Council. Within a year of joining the council and attending one of its major events, Ojeikere’s photographic practise shifted. Over the next three decades, Ojeikere travelled throughout the country documenting aspects of Nigeria’s material culture, which he felt were disappearing in the face of rapid modernisation. Ojeikere photographed the traditional dances, dresses, hairstyles and ceremonies with an unparalleled sense of urgency. He captured many artisanal trades that he knew would probably die with the elders as the youth moved to the urban areas to look for white collared jobs. His documentation bore witness to the richness of Nigeria’s cultural heritage. And it is precisely the artist’s astute awareness of this heritage that inspired his most celebrated body of work, the’Hairstyles’ project. Comprising over one thousand negatives, Ojeikere meticulously and systematically photographed as well as studied the meanings and significance of the multitude of traditional hairstyles from the diverse cultural groups that make up Nigeria today. In undertaking this work, he states, I am attracted to photography because it allows me to record knowledge and moments in history and culture. (9)
In the 1960s, after independence from British rule, the need to build pride around a unified Nigerian identity had spread beyond the political realm to encompass cultural activities aimed at contributing something distinctly Nigerian to world culture. The new Nigeria, whilst united in the euphoria of its independence was divided on other levels. The country had adopted a federal constitution in which politically conscious ethnic groups competed for control of the central government through ethnically based political parties. Regionalism and ethnicity remained major challenges obstructing the development of national identity. Distinctively, Ojeikere did not portrait Nigeria through its ethnic divisions instead he contributed to the search for ways to develop a recognisable, unified Nigerian culture. Nigeria’s rich history and traditions were the foundation upon which this new national consciousness was to be built. (10)
Ojeikere continued to engage the intersections of nationalism and culture with his architecture series of an evolving Lagos into a massive, urban utopia unified by ties of social, cultural and economic efforts. In the 1960s and 1970s, the presence of new modern styles of architecture was at its peak. In response to the cultural, political and economic changes that accompanied independence, several architects aimed at constructing new paths and references for the field. Ojeikere documented this new momentum and experimentation, which contrasted the orthodox tropical architecture, with photos of building exteriors and architectural details. Architecture played a role in forming symbols of progress. The artist’s Niger House series (1965-1966) documents in its entirety the construction of the Niger House and CSS Bookshop on Broad Street in Lagos. As we encounter the emergence of a building, we also encounter Nigeria’s modern transformation, the changes in structures of space and time. The Niger House’s sense of modernity is characterised by its geometrical forms, symmetrical ornaments and balanced thematic. Both the aesthetic and the social functions of the building, among other things, are a metaphor of Nigeria’s desire to sovereignty.
Through Ojeikere’s work, culture can be defined as an organised, but not a hierarchical system of stories. He creates a distinctive cultural environment that aims to break the colonial cycle of guilt, denial and ignorance. Ojeikere’s oeuvre contributes to the rejected consciousness of the past by building a national, cultural narrative in terms of shared culture, reflecting historical experiences and collective cultural codes, which provide an understanding of continuous frames of references and meaning. (11) The artist stages both personal and collective identities in the search for the psychological and emotional dispositions that are at stake.
Bearing in mind that there have been many different forms of colonialism, the mediating role of the’national cause’ in the dynamics of modernisation emerges as a common thread that further complicates our understanding of how ideologies incorporate and absorb sources of dissent. (12) Ojeikere’s photographic output not only analyses cultural phenomena and identities, but reminds us that if these examinations are not contained and preserved, they will be forgotten, relegated to the annals of history. Through the power of photography he creates possibilities for a sense of belonging and strongly participates in the process of constituting meaning. The awareness and appreciation of shared origins, of contradictory dynamics and of history sets the stage for Ojeikere to create possibilities, which recognise different fragments and histories. His work constructs points of identification, which we can now, in retrospect, call a cultural identity.
Ojeikere’s work supports the aims to generate a new tradition of argumentation, consisting in a diversity of interdependent cultural identities in which and between which narratives are shared and traditions maintained and remade within everyone’s critical understanding. Built on the turning points in Nigeria’s history, Moments of Beauty casts light on the aesthetics and politics of Ojeikere’s vast practice as it addresses the project of modernisation in post-independence Nigeria, bringing its historical focus closer to our contemporary moment.

* J. D.’Okhai OjeikereMoments of Beauty15 April- 27 November 2011
ARS 11Museum of Contemporary Art, KiasmaHelsinki, Finland

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p. 14.
2.Okwui Enwezor, Snap judgments: new positions in contemporary African photography (New York: International Center of Photography, 2006), p. 13.
3. Some of these photographers had European names and as such were, for many years, not thought to be Africans. For example, J. A. Green is actually, Jonathan Alagoa Green, an Ijaw artist and photographer with a well-known practice around the modern-day Niger Delta region. George da Costa became a photographer for the colonial government and documented many of the activities of the government across Nigeria including the Northern regions.
4. Erika Nimis, Photographes d’Afrique de l’Ouest: L’expérience Yoruba (Paris: Karthala, 2005).
5. Conversation with Bisi Silva at Ojeikere’s residence in Lagos, Nov. 26th 2010.
6. André Magnin, J. D.’Okhai Ojeikere, and Elizabeth Akuyo Oyairo, J.D.’Okhai Ojeikere: Photographs (Zurich: Scalo, 2000).
7. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove 1963), p. 188.
8. Magnin, p. 46.
9. Ibid.
10. Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton, A History of Nigeria (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 160-4.
11. Stuart Hall, Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage 1996), p. 393.
12. Kobena Mercer, Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures. Annotating Art’s Histories: Cross-Cultural Perspectives in the Visual Arts. (& Cambridge, MA: MIT Press London, 2007), p. 20.
///Article N° : 11519

Les images de l'article

Untitled (UCI-1354-62), 1962, Courtesy of foto ojeikere

© J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere

Untitled (WNTV 010-62), 1962, Courtesy of foto ojeikere

© J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere

Untitled (HG0541-05), 2005, Courtesy of foto ojeikere

© J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere

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