Friday 14 September 2012

Rescuing Green from the mist of history

By Tajudeen Sowole
Although, Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873 – 1905) reigned during the colonial era as a distinguished photographer of international repute, lack of documentation has cast fog on his work and flourishing career with little or no link to Nigeria’s modern art

DESPITE the presentation of the visiting American art historian, Lisa Aronson at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, which revealed the quality of Adagogo’s work, certain facts show that the photographer’s career has been highly isolated from Nigerian art history.

The event continued the CCA's four years old art talk gathering tagged Art-iculate.

Aronson’s presentation titled The Two Worlds of Nigerian Artist/Photographer J. A. Green indeed attempted to rescue Green from the mist of history, but it only succeeded in paving the way for a broad research to correct the Ijaw-born photo-artist’s conspicuous absence in Nigerian art lexicon.

Aronson, an Associate Prof of Art History at Skidmore College, U.S., teaches and writes mainly about African art and visual culture. From the images shown by Aronson, Nigeria’s art history is incomplete without Green’s extensive work on the Niger Delta of the colonial era.

Some of these images include portraits of 19th century royal heads such as Chief Archibong of Calabar, Chief Oruasi Green’s body with royal family as well as several captures of some British colonialists either at social or formal gatherings.

It has been established over the past few decades that photography should not be an orphan in the family of visual arts genres. However, extending the scope of Nigerian modernity to pre-Aina Onabulu (1882–1963) period could be very complex. Lack of researches and books on the history of photography in Nigeria also makes documentation of Green’s work difficult.

During a debate in 2010, veteran photographer, Tam Fiofori had cautioned on dating Nigerian modern art without considering the pre-Onabolu period, particularly Green’s professional photography career. Fiofori, on the floor of the public hearing organised for the proposed re-enactment of National Gallery of Art (NGA) Bill held inside 028 Conference Hall, House of Representatives (New Building), Abuja, had canvassed the inclusion of photography in dating the history of modern art in Nigeria.
Lisa Aronson
  Although responses from stakeholders outside the Abuja public hearing clearly showed that Onabolu’s impact on modern Nigerian art could not be ignored, even if photography was considered an art form a century ago. For example, Onabolu’s portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage, watercolour (1906), according to sources, was a life study painted before an audience of Europeans and Nigerians to prove that his earlier works of several years were painted by him.

Apart from the fact that Onabolu is well documented, his impact on Nigerian art has reverberated across generations; he introduced formal art training into the country’s academia and he was held in high esteem by the colonialists.

 For Green, whatever he lacked in adequate documentation, he might have gained in the kind of retrospection Aronson presented in the course of the programme. A brief journey through his work confirms the creative similarity among the visual art genres such as painting, photography and sculpture. From such captures as group portraits to landscapes, qualities like depth and dimensional illusion were not missing. In fact, Aronson, through a slide at CCA event, argued that Green’s works were better creatively rendered than some of the pictures taken by the British colonialists’ photographers.

However, for the Nigerian modern art to be extended to pre-Onabolu era, it may have to go beyond the quality Aronson revealed of Green’s work, as art historians are yet to showcase his impact or influence on the growth of photography in Nigeria. Perhaps, in the future, it would be interesting to know Green’s contemporaries and other Nigerians who benefited from his practice of photography.

Within the scope of Aronson’s focus, the strength of photography in gaining political edge at the period of conflict was highlighted. For example, under the sub-theme, J.A. Green and the British Gaze, Aronson disclosed a ‘manipulated’ difference among some of the works of Green allegedly circulated by the British colonialists ahead of the Benin 1897 Punitive Expedition. She noted that some of the works were changed in composite, “even though there was no photo-shop then”, to show that the people of Benin were oppressed by Oba Ovonramwen (1888–1914). In her comparative analysis, Green’s original captures show “well-fed children and happy people.”
Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873-1905)
Quite interestingly, she asserted that the manipulative strategy of the British colonial era is still being employed today by Western powers to violate nations’ sovereignties. 

With another sub-theme, J.A. Green and the Ijo Gaze, the presentation stirred debate, particularly among photographers present at CCA, over Green’s capturing of his fellow natives in more dignifying postures. It could be a subject of discourse and research in the future as photography gets more attention in Nigeria.

Aronson’s work on Green is expected to lead to a joint book project. She is currently co-curating an exhibition of contemporary African art with the Tang Museum Director, John Weber.

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