Friday 12 October 2012

LagosPhoto Festival… Dutch artist joins the megacity train

By Tajudeen Sowole

When Dutch photographer, Hans Wilschut, first visited Nigeria in 2008 to capture the remnant of the infamous collapsing Bank of Industry (BOI) building on Broad Street, Lagos Island – before it was pulled down – he never thought his camera would be contributing to the ongoing transition of Lagos to a megacity.

And seated recently at the poolside restaurant of Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos during a chat with his guest, Wilschut stressed the quiet synergy that exists between photography and urban planning and renewal as well as architecture. His last visit, about the fourth, since he captured the BOI building, was in preparation for a photography festival LagosPhoto 2012, which opens tomorrow.
Lagos central business district, one of Hans wilschut’s pictures showing at LagosPhoto 2012.
He disclosed how the BOI building came into his focus through Western media, and recalled his thought then: “I wondered how a big story it would be” capturing the delicate position of the building. “Though a disaster, but it was a beautiful landmark,” he enthused like an archaeologist who just uncovered ancient ruins.  His strong interest in the building would make him come back to Lagos having been dissatisfied with his first shots. On return to The Netherlands, he realised he had to make an urgent revisit to Lagos. Why? “I was dissatisfied with the results, so I came back a few months later in 2008.” The unsatisfactory shoots, he said, was a victim of recurring “electricity cut,” when he had his first visit. He was, however, lucky enough to recapture the building before it was pulled down by the Lagos State Government the same year. 

And what a thriller it would have been if Wilschut’s camera were present when the building was collapsed through controlled method. Although Wilschut missed the final pull down of the building, his lens would be back to shoot more of a city he described as “an ongoing opera” where “anyway you turn, something is happening.”  For him, Lagos is full of excitement such that “you are never bored in this city.”

And if you think a Dutch man whose less than four years knowledge of Lagos could not be so trusted, Wilschut reviewed development in the city, at least within the limit of his three visit and noted that in terms of urban renewal, which is the focus of his photography, progress has been made in Lagos. “I am pleased with the changes and progress made by Governor Fashola.”

To test the Dutch photographer’s understanding of Lagos’ transition to megacity in specifics terms, he cited management of vehicular traffic as example of change in the state. On the improving traffic situation in the state, despite inadequate roads, Wilschut, though not aware that a new initiative, Lagos Traffic Radio FM plays a major role, insisted there is a change. “In my opinion, there is less traffic now compared to when I was here last,” he argued and also noted “you have the green parts, new buses.”       

On parks and the new green look of Lagos, the visitor’s camera did not miss the complexity of how space is used, particularly in a state, which is among the smallest in the country, yet has the most densely populated city in West Africa.   One of the works of Wilschut, which stresses the challenges in environmental management, presents the typical battle between informal economic activities and the state government’s passion for sanity. The work, a painterly landscape of one of several oil tin workers under the bridges, specifically at the Adeniji Adele-Third Mainland Bridge intersection is beauty or creativity in insanity. Adding to the creative and colourful paradox are parked mini yellow buses on the bridge. Although Wilschut has a good picture of this sight, but probably not aware that the buses that add linear beauty to the image are Lagos’ irritants’ commercial buses otherwise known as ‘Yankee Bravos’.

Wilschut noted that “Lagos has its own rules; people decide how space is being used.” He, however, advised the people on how to take “responsibility for their environment.” Photography, he said, cannot afford to be partisan in the battle for space, “so I am not just here to shoot beautiful environment, but areas of challenges as well.”

Such scenes, he disclosed, sometimes presents conceptual imaging of odd mix. For example, an abandoned building project in central business district (CBD), Lagos almost concealing the aesthetic of a new bank behind, may not complement Lagos State government’s efforts in enforcing urban renewal rule, but brings a good composite for photography. “I find the mixed an interesting composite,” he said.

In Lagos odd mix, which are signs of emerging megacity and challenges in changing the mentality of the people makes big cities of Europe and other advanced economies less interesting to Wilschut. Having worked in South Africa in 2008 for three months, and experienced Lagos, “I got bored with the capitalist scenes in cities of America and Europe, so I came to Africa.”

Still in search of outlet to release his passion, he found what looks like a perfect match in LagosPhoto, a young photography festival, which made its debut in 2010 courtesy of Azu Nwagbogu-led African Artists Foundation (AAF). Wilschut showed at the Eko Hotel and Suites opening with over 40 other photographers from Africa and Europe. He was not present physically to witness the show, but his works appeared like the true face of the festival.

For the 2012 edition, the theme Seven Days in the Life of Lagos, offers each participant to see Lagos in diverse views. He said: “LagosPhoto project gives you an opportunity to move around and work. After my seven days here, I hope to continue working on another project that deals in architecture.”

Having taken part in one edition –missed the second and preparing for the third – does the original concept of LagosPhoto actually fitted his desire? “In 2010, I did not attend physically because my wife just had a baby. What fascinated me is that the vision was not restricted to Africa, but the whole world so that it becomes a destination for photography. I think LagosPhoto is growing, maybe not as big as the African Biennial in Mali, African Encounters of Photography, Bamako.”

With a background in painting, though “not a fantastic painter,” his work, to a large extent seems to have drawn a thick line between reporting and creative or conceptual photography. This much, he does almost effortlessly, but in higher intellect with digital post-production: “I am an artist, not a reporter who reports actual events, so post-production is important to me. Though I do not have much elaboration in post-production, but enough to change the emotion of my picture. For example, I modify spectrum of lights to suit my desire. I used to be a painter.”
Hans Wilschut, working in Lagos.

Leaving familiar terrain in Europe to Africa and the Middle East must have been challenging, particularly in terms of security and adjusting to different cultures. “Security is always an issue,” he argued, noting that it takes different tones from one country to another. “In Lagos, for example, it’s the area boys. Wherever I go, not everybody is in favour of what I am doing, but at the end they try to appreciate it. And sometimes it could be naughty such as it happened when I was in jail in Abu Dhabi during the Danish anti-Islam cartoon crisis. The security men thought I was a spy. They arrested me while working in the city, and took me into jail for one day. In the end, they found out that I was just an artist. Not a pleasant experience. But I don’t like to talk about such experiences; I am not a hero, just trying to make good works of photography.”

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