Monday 3 February 2014

Life in Pictures…Ojeikere’s lens on parade

First published on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 

By Tajudeen Sowole 
Eight decades on earth and 60 years of practice, octogenarian photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere has become a living legend whose glorious moments as a photo artist are shared with the public in an art exhibition to mark his 80th birthday.

Ojeikere is well known for breathtaking and classic captures, but he has a different idea of how to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Few days ago, he surprised his admirers with an exhibition of photographs, mostly about his personal life, and taken over a period of 50 years, in the show titled J.D. Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer, held at Frameshop Extra, Yaba, Lagos.

One of the works on display during J.D. Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer. 

For those who know Ojeikere, he is no stranger to paradox. In fact, one of his children, Iria Ojeikere, hinted that “growing up, we did not have pictures hanging on our walls, nor did we have any photo albums at home.”

Such works as historic pictures of post-independence, taken while in the information unit of Western Nigeria Television  (WNTV); numerous studio shots done for some advertising agencies, as a freelance photographer; some series on traditional hair weaving, shot recently, should have presented the man in his known and common image. 

 However, A Life in Pictures was like a novelty for the octogenarian who has put in over six decades in photography. Indeed, it was worth the rare choice for the birthday of a photographer who has over 30 exhibitions, home and abroad, to his credit, including seven solo outings.

Are these works on display selected from some of those self-taken shots of Ojeikere? “Not at all; they are all taken by my colleagues,” the artist said shortly after leading visitors through the exhibits.

Though the works are from unidentified photographers, they offered a peep into the life of someone who has the mastery of the lens.

Most of the works on display showed that the essential role of photography as a medium of communication and documentation, particularly in post-independence Nigeria, appeared not to have been given the deserved attention in the nation’s art gallery space. And perhaps, an exhibition of this kind is significant in the year Nigeria is celebrating her 50th independence. In fact, the show could pass as an indirect celebration of photography in the nation’s golden jubilee anniversary. Reason: the artist is one of the few known living photographers who worked either as a freelancer or civil servant during the build-up to independence of 1960. Between mid 1950s and 1961, he was a photographer with Ministry of Information, Western Region and Africa’s premiere television station, Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) Ibadan.

Inadequate promotion and documentation of photography-related works by various designated government agencies has always been an issue in the art sub-division of the culture sector. And Ojeikere never hid his displeasure whenever such debates arose. While chiding the National Gallery of Art (NGA) at a gathering, few years ago, for what he called insensitivity towards photography, he lamented that, for example, it took the intervention of a French curator, Andre Magrin to get his works, J. D. Okhai Ojeikere: Photographs, a book on African hairstyles and culture published.

Mounted in medium and miniature sizes, a section of J.D. Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer, took viewers back to the artist’s beginning.  In an outdoor piece, Weighing Photographic Chemicals for Mixing (1954), young Ojeikere was captured in daylight action as this work showed part of photography process of that period. Another archival piece is a threesome of the artist and two colleagues, Testing new Camera With Colleagues, (1957).

Quite interesting to see some pictures that explained fashion, specifically, fabric statements of the past 50 years. Between Wedding Traditional Attire, (1959); Wedding with Mr. Arukhe, Francis Umeri and Zac, (1959); Wedding With Mr and Mrs Neye Ogunsola, (1959); Wedding With Mrs Oluwole and Mama Kehinde, (1959) and Ojeikere’s family portraits such as 50th Wedding Anniversary, (2009); With Children at 50th Wedding Anniversary; With Grandchildren at 50th Wedding Anniversary, the resilience of lace fabric comes to fore.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere
If today’s women think that they have better artistry of the ikpele (schawls) on buba (blouse), some of these pictures showed that indeed, fashion is about recycling of ideas; nothing is really new.

Also, the evergreen nature of the buba/iro for women and buba/kembe (baggy trousers) for men is a celebration of traditional designs in the artist’s wedding picture, Wedding (1959).

For artists, a debut exhibition is a cherished moment. That explains why memory of Ojeikere’s first exhibition made the selection for this show as the group picture taken at the venue, Nigerian Art Council showed other artists, including late sculptor, Erhabour Emokpae.

Every profession brings its shades of generational shifts. For photography, it’s not been a cheering development, Ojeikere argued. “Photographers of today are always in a hurry,” he said. “Photography is an art which requires more than common knowledge of operating the camera.”

He was quick to add that his generation of photographers had the advantage of “working with the white people who know that you cannot produce good shots in a hurry.”

Among his exhibitions, in the last ten years, the Hairstyles, a tour show held in Nigeria and abroad, is perhaps the icing on the cake in his career. He had noted that the culture of natural weaving hairstyle was fast declining, hence the documentation in pictures of what he often described as “sculptural art” of the hairdresser.

To emphasise this sculptural characteristics of the hairstyle in picture, most of his shots are taken from the back angle. As the most pronounced aspect of his career, shadow of the hairstyle era falls on J.D. Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer: some pictures taken during one or two of the exhibitions held abroad still radiates the glory and ingenuity behind the concept in photographs taken during the shows and on display at this current event.

The exhibition was held as Nigerian Traditional Hairstyle at Goethe Institut, Lagos, 1999 and as Hairstyles at Wedge Gallery, Toronto, Canada, 2002; Blaffer Gallery, Houston, U.S., 2005; Maison de France, Lagos 2005.

It’s remarkable to know from Iria that, though the images were taken by other photographers, his father “has kept quite a lot of the negatives, especially from the 1950s,” from which some of the works on display have been produced.

And quietly, there is a dynasty of photographers in the Ojeikere family: aside one of his children, Amaize Ojeikere who is currently a full time photographer, others, according to sources, are directly or indirectly involved in photography. In fact, one of the works on display at this show, according to Iria, was taken by the artist’s grandson, Okhaifo Ojeikere, who was barely six years old.  
Born in 1930, in Ovbiomu-Emai village, Owan-East Local Government of Edo State, Ojeikere, was later trained in photography by a local photographer, Albert Anieke in Abakaliki, Enugu.
After working for government, he took up another job as Chief Commercial Photographer and Head of Photographic Department at Lintas Limited (now Lowe Lintas). After leaving Lintas in 1975, he set up a studio, Foto Ojeikere.

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