Friday 14 October 2011


Who owns national archival photographs?

By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published on April 29, 2008)
Over a century of Nigeria's history documented in photographs is suspected to be, illegally, in the possession of an individual.

Recently, an art exhibition of photographs organised by a Lagos based group, Legacy Nigeria 1995, which had 164 exhibits on display at the Brazilian Embassy, Victoria Island, Lagos had led to the curiosity of the origin of the works on display.

A visit to the show entitled, Nigeria In Transition revealed that the artists of the works were not known as none of the photographs was signed. However in the brochure of the exhibition, the organisers stated that the exhibits were prints from negatives belonging to one Alhaji Baba Shettima. 

Official residence of the Colonial Govs along Marina, Lagos, built in 1896
"These images have been produced by Legacy from a collection numbering over 3000 negatives, owned by Alhaji Baba Shettima, who has given us permission to use them for exhibition purposes," the opening paragraph of the non-pictorial brochure explained.

And during his address at the opening of the event, a leading member of the group, Prof. John Godwin also confirmed the source of the exhibits as stated in the brochure.
Said to have been shot from the 1940s through 1970s, among the exhibits were pictures of architectural scenes dating back to as early as 1906, majority of which are not standing today, but have been documented in photography.

Included was a January 12, 1954, Ikeja Airport, Lagos scene where late Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe, were waiting for British Secretary of State Sir Olivier Lytttleton. Also among the works was a January 16, 1954 scene at the Lagos Constitutional conference chaired by Lytleton as the lens of the unknown photo artist came on time to capture Ahmadu Bello who engaged Anthony Enahoro in an opposing mood. The scene was that of the Sardauna as the leader of the Northern delegate, opposing the move, by Enahoro, for the nation's independence. Enahoro was said to have moved for a 1956 date for the nation's independence.

It does not take any expertise to know that negatives of photographic documentation of events and people are the only reason to prove the existence of such history, past and present.
But who is the owner of over 3000 negatives containing over 100 years of events and people of Nigeria? If Shettima as claimed is the owner of the negatives, he must have bought them from someone or the government.

There are very few individuals in this country, like the ace photographer, Peter Obe whose claims of owning such negatives would not raise any suspicion.

And who is Shettima? Does he belong to the photographers of Obe’s generation? Records revealed that Shettima joined the civil service in 1965, as a photographic assistant in the Ministry of Information, Kaduna.

The man, according to some photographers who had, in the past either worked or had exhibitions with him, used to be the head of the photo unit of the Ministry of Information until his retirement from the civil service in 2000.

Sources disclosed that shortly before the ministry was moved from Lagos to Abuja, the photography unit of the ministry needed to restore some negatives. As the head of that unit, Shettima, the source explained, directly took charge of the restoration of the negatives. The restoration, according to another source was carried out at a private film laboratory in Lagos. This, apparently, suggested that something was wrong with the ministry’s laboratory.

Confirming that Shettima carried out the restoration exercise, ace photo artist, Don Barber said two weeks ago that the restoration was done at his laboratory in Surulere in 1995.

Currently operating at his studio inside the Dolphin Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos where he spoke with his guest, Barber recalled: "I used to have my studio at Surulere then when Shettima came to me with some negatives which he wanted to restore. I did the job for him. But he raised the issue of preservation of the negatives by the government. I think that was the period the ministry of information was being moved from Lagos to Abuja. We talked on the possible poor preservation of the negatives by the ministry because, as at that period, the new building of the ministry in Abuja was not really ready for photographic materials to be properly kept."
  A ministry of information that lacked photo lab (black and white) to restore negatives of archival importance, apparently could not have bothered about preservation of such negatives.
Whatever happened to the negatives after restoration? Perhaps with the intention of saving the negatives from possible damage, Shettima, sources said, had them in his personal possession.

But that intention as good as it sounded, however turned out to be a different motive as events unfolded. A year after the negatives were supposedly in care of Shettima’s personal care, there was a photo exhibition at the National Museum Onikan, Lagos involving some photographers. The exhibition, Barber said featured works of photo artists like Tam Fiofori, Barber, Garba Mohanmmed and had Shettima featuring some works, perhaps printed from the restored negatives of the previous year.

At the said exhibition, Shettima, it was gathered had the best of exhibits because of the historical nature of the photographs he displayed.

It was at another exhibition said to have taken place at the Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, later,archival  that the issue of the photographers of the works Shettima was showing came up, Barber said, adding that Shettima, at the Mydrim event brought more photographs.

Shettima it was gathered did not participate in the shows as the government’s representative, and yet the photographers of the works he exhibited were not given credit. "It was Garba who raised the issue at the Mydrim show, that Shettima has no right to be showing National archive photographs as his personal belongings," Barber explained.

One of the exhibiting artists of that show, Garba also confirmed that Shettima participated in the two exhibitions. While responding to the recent exhibition organised by Legacy and which has brought out the need to revisit Shettima, Garbar wondered how Legacy said Shettima owned the photographs that were taken long before he was born. "How old is Shettima? We are talking of large format used in photographs that were taken as back as when he was probably a toddler. Shettima has been parading himself as owners of these works, but we knew that one day, the truth would be known. How can he say he shot picture of the current Alafin of Oyo as a child seating on the lap of his father?"

Aside the issue of possession of negatives that are suppose to be with the national archive, Garba disclosed that Shettima was not a member of the then Photographers Association of Nigeria, PAN.

The umbrella body of all photographers in the country then, PAN, Garba explained, was a member of Reproduction Right Organisation of Nigeria. Garba, a lawyer cum-photographer asked: "If Shettima is not a member of PAN and not a representative of government at these exhibitions, what right has he to reproduce other people’s works?" 

Attempt to reach Settima through the telephone number Godwin released as his mobile telephone contact failed, despite about two weeks of trying to reach him. The voice on the line kept saying, "the number dialed is not responding".

The issue here is not that an individual or any non-governmental groups cannot own such negatives. But such a person or organisation has to prove the intellectual right of the materials. There is no issue really if printed copies are what Shettima has been laying claim to. 
U.S. Consul, Lagos, 1949
  If an individual is suspected to be in possession of over 3000 negatives of national archival materials, one expected the concerned government agencies before now to have carried out some research in to this. Perhaps the issue raised, after the exhibitions at National Museum and Mydrim Gallery, respectively, did not get the attention of the relevant government agencies then.

Agencies responsible for the possession of such negatives include The National Archive, Nigerian Film Corporation and National Gallery of Art. Perhaps, most crucial to the issue is the National Archive. Set up via Decree No. 30 of July 8, 1992 the statutory functions, according to documents of the agency are:
"Shall be entrusted with the permanent custody, care and control of all archives of the Federal Government and of such other archives or historical records as may be required, from time to time, pursuant to this Decree."

Among such functions, the document which was obtained through the agency’s web site further explained in paragraph (e) that the National Archive shall "make arrangements for the housing of films, other records and archives which require to be kept under special conditions;

Establish via Decree No. 86 of 1993, the NGA, according to its functions is to serve as a repository for artistic creations with particular interest in contemporary sculpture, jewelry, textiles, paintings, pottery and ceramics, architectural, and communication designs, drawings and prints, photographs and graphics.

For the NFC, which was set up via the NFC Act of 1979, a National Film Archive, mandated by the Act has been put in place as a subsidiary of NFC. Known as the National Film Video and Sound Archive (NFVSA) its functions, among others are: "To serve as the national repository of motion pictures and related materials of lasting value to Nigeria, preserve the motion picture heritage of Nigeria as well as related documents for posterity.

No comments:

Post a Comment