Sunday 15 December 2013

'Voyage Retour'…Lens zooms on African-European connection

By Tajudeen Sowole
 IN revisiting photographic documentary of pre- and post-colonial Africa, a group exhibition titled Voyage Retour and its sub-event conference, Crossing Archive, highlighted some of the continent’s epochs.

From J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s 1960 shot of Nigerian Exhibition Stand.

Organised by the Goethe-Institut, Lagos, with the support of the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Nigeria, the twin event provided multi-facets window: perspective of foreign photographers in capturing the political, cultural and social activities of the people, particularly in the years running into the periods most African countries got their independence; alternative views from local photographers, who captured the independence and post-colonial eras; review of documentary photography in sub-Sahara Africa as articulated by artists, scholars and curators during the reference periods of the exhibition.

Also supported by the Museum Folkwang, Germany, the events were conceptualised by the curator of Voyage Retour, Kerstin Meincke.

As Voyage Retour ended its Lagos show, the conference Crossing Archive, held at Goethe Insitut, City Hall, Lagos Island, focused on African photography archives within the continent’s geopolitical context.

With participants such as director of Munich-based Haus der Kunst, Santu Mofokeng, Okwui Enwezor; Princeton University, U.S-based art historian, Chika Okeke-Agulu; and director, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Bisi Silva; the subject was discussed, using the Nigerian situation as point of reference.

Inside the Federal Government Press building on Broad Street, Lagos Island, where the photography exhibition was mounted for two weeks, archival works of veteran Nigerian photographer, J. D. Okhai Ojeikere, described by the organisers as showing for the first time in the public, were on display alongside others from foreign photo artists.

The group exhibition included works of Rolf Gillhausen, Germaine Krull, Robert Lebeck, Malick Sidibé and Wolfgang Webe loaned from the Museum Folkwang’s collection in Germany.

The curatorial articulation of the Voyage Retour photography exhibition was conspicuous in the choice of the venue, a government building that has its history dated back to 1896 under the British colonial government. A section of the press building converted into an exhibition hall, though lacks ideal headroom for functional art space, it however complements the works on display.

For example, Ojeikere’s works such as the capture of a stand, described as ‘Nigeria Exhibition, 1960’, brings back the memory of the nation’s independence.

And what a changed streetscape of the Marina axis of Lagos Island in an aerial shot by Ojeikere labeled ‘Old Marina, Lagos 1965’. The picture tells the story of nearly 50 years-old of what road engineers and environmentalists call land reclamation; a Marina road that was just a few feet close to the lagoon, compared to the sand-filled and expansion of the same area as it stands currently, giving space to more roads and bridges that link Lagos and Victoria Islands. 

It’s perhaps a first time that Ojeikere showed the pictures in the public, but another shot of the old Marina of the same period by unknown photographer was among works on display at an exhibition by a Non-Governmental group, Legacy Nigeria 1995 at Brazilian Embassy, Victoria Island, Lagos in 2008.

For the Voyage Retour, Ojeikere’s dominance of the space was not hidden just as a video documentary J.D.Okhai Ojeikere: Master Photographer, by Tam Fiofori welcomed visitors at the entrance of the hall.

Some of the pictures of other exhibited photographers included Gillhausen’s works of the independence era such as the visit of a Yugoslavian President to Liberia in 1961, among several others.  But in a Lebeck’s work taken in Congo, 1960 comes a dramatic moment as the photographer tracks the intrusion of a man who snatches the sword of visiting Belgian King Baudouin, during a parade through the city in a motorcade next to the African country’s first post-colonial president, Joseph Kasabubu. Lebeck’s lens follows the ‘sword thief’, Ambroise Bonusbo, a Congolese, who crosses the security barrier and grabs the object. In a near animated imagery, the pictorial of the event dated June 29, 1960 had the photographer’s camera follows the security forces chase the ‘thief’ and bundle him into a police vehicle.

Few days before the exhibition ended, the German Consul General in Lagos, Michael Derus noted that the exhibition “has so much for people interested in real history of Africa”. It’s a project that has been in the plans since 2008, he added. Derus also explained the importance of the exhibition as a confirmation that Europe’s interest in Africa is not confined to economic activities. “Cultural exchange is as important.”

Co-curator, Anne-Lena Michel recalled that the exhibition had traveled to other places in Europe, but the Lagos show was the first time in Africa. On preservation of the images, she explained, “the prints are shown in climate framing to preserve humidity”. For the only Nigerian photographer, Ojeikere, in the group, his works on display, Michel said, “have not been shown elsewhere.”

And when Derus acknowledged that Ojeikere was “the star of the exhibition”, the diplomat confirmed the octogenarian photographer’s rating as one of the most exhibited documentary photographers in Africa. As a photographer whose work continues to serve as a repository of Nigeria’s past, Ojeikere is arguably a colossus, who has little or nothing to prove again. But his dominance on the archival photography exhibition turf of Nigeria and abroad in the past two decades suggests that there was a dearth of independent documentary photographers during the periods in focus.

Apart from the work of late renowned photo journalist, Peter Obe, published in his book Civil War Pictures From Nigeria: A Decade of Crisis in Pictures.” as well as an exhibition of the same content credited to him, archival photographs of Nigeria’s pre- and post-independence are largely hidden from the public. Another concern is that the photographers of few of the works seen in the public are not exactly known.

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