By Tajudeen Sowole
Currently on display at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos as portraits exhibition, and supported by the British Council, London, the body of work titled Emissaries of an Iconic Religion, according to the organisers, marks the first major solo exhibition of Opara in Nigeria.
|Orisa Imole (deity and Judgment) Chief Aderemi Awogbemi.
It should be recalled that two years ago, the photographer showed few portraits of worshipers from the Yoruba traditional religion during a group exhibition Contested Terrains, which featured works of Kalder Attia, Sammy Baloji and Michael ManGary at Level 2 Gallery, Tate Modern, U.K and at CCA, last year.
The curator of Emissaries of an Iconic Religion, Jude Anoqwih noted that though “God and religion generate heated debate among Nigerians, Opara’s work offers opportunity to share diverse views, particularly about Yoruba traditional religion.”
The debate over religious tolerance, which Opara’s work may generate, is as complex as distilling culture from traditional African religions. Culture Scholars and theologians may keep drawing or erasing the lines between religion and culture, but education about a people’s history, which the exhibition focuses, is perhaps paramount in picking or discarding certain ancestral elements.
Aside seeing depiction of traditional Yoruba religion worships in shoestring-budget dramas on TV and movies, perhaps, one of the photographic projects about the adherents, in recent times that got so close came from a Berlin-based Nigerian photographer, Akinbiyi Akinbode. Although Akinbode captured his images from the community of Orisa worshipers in Brazil, the portraiture characteristic appears like the commonality with Opara’s works.
However, Opara’s Emissaries of an Iconic Religion brings the paraphernalia of the adherents’ worship into public space, in images, glossed with pride. Given the myth or reality of fear built around traditional African worships, generally, the images appeared like costumed and modeled portraiture. “No, these are the real people”, he stated. And there was a relationship established between the photographers and the people, not just about looking for some dying cultures. “I spent quite some time with them, through a friend, Wale,” he disclosed. It took him two years of “traveling to and fro Osun State when Wale shared some knowledge about the traditional Yoruba worship with me”.
Presented in aristocratic-like portrait framing, some the works include Orisa Imole (deity and Judgment) with a young man, Chief Aderemi Awogbemi who is pictured with several shrine items; Orisa Odu (diety of Blessings and Protection) pictured with Olakunle Falowo Ololade; and Orisa Lajoomi (deity of children) seen with Mrs Ogunremi Lekun.
The director of CCA, Bisi Silva described Opara’s works as engaging “the sensitive debate surrounding the demonisation and denigration of traditional religion instigated by colonial and missionary rhetoric”. And quite of note, is the that, for the wrong reasons, intolerance has crept into religious practices culminating in divisive error. Silva argued that the “issues of power and representation are at the fore of present tensions and civil unrest between what is characterised locally as the Muslim north and the Christian south.”
For the photographer, he had always been suspicious of the traditional African religion. And photographing the activities, he recalled, “at this level is confrontational.” Between promoting “idolatory and educating people about African religious background” lies the dilemma. Opara however argued that “knowing where we were coming from would keep us focus and produce better leadership.”
CCA traced the exhibition to the centre’s five-year old commitment in the “promotion of lens-based media.” Some of the previous shows in the context of identity via photography included that of Nigerians artists such as George Osodi, Lucy Azubuike, Mudi Yahaya, Jide Alakija, Victor Ehikamenor and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere as well as foreign artists Zanele Muholi and Pinar Yolacan.
The centre noted how the visibility of photography in Nigeria “has grown exponentially over the past five years through the initiatives of many photographers and organisations who have carried out workshops, talks and exhibitions.” The yearly Lagos PhotoFestival organised by The African Artists Foundation (AAF) was cited as one such activities.
Opara, b.1981, in Imo State has exhibited in group shows such as African Lace, 2010, Museum fur Vulkerkunde, Vienna, Austria and National Musuem, Onikan, Lagos; African Photography Encounters, 2011, Bamako, Mali; The Tie That Binds Us, 2012, Tiwani Contemporary, London among others.