Sunday 9 February 2014

Ojeikere's last shots

By Tajudeen Sowole
When veteran portrait and documentary photographer, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) had two exhibitions within two months period last year, the art community was unaware that the renowned photo artist was taking his last shots.

Ojeikere passed on in the afternoon of February 2, 2014 after a brief illness. Born in Ovbiomu-Emai village, Owan-East Local Government of what is now known as Edo State, Ojeikere, was trained by a local photographer, Albert Anieke in Abakaliki, Enugu.

One of Okeikere’s shots
Between mid 1950s and 1961, he was a photographer with the then Ministry of Information, Western Region and Africa’s premiere television station, Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) Ibadan.
  After working for government, he took up another job as Chief Commercial Photographer and Head of Photographic Department at Lintas Limited (now Lowe Lintas). And after leaving Lintas in 1975, he set up studio Foto Ojeikere.

 In his over five decades career that traversed public service, corporate employment and independent practice, Ojeikere also worked in diverse themes. In over 30 solo and group exhibitions around the world, he showed the diversity of his themes. But his last two exhibitions,  Networks and Voids held at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos in October and Voyage Retour, at Federal Government Press building, Broad Street, in December seemed to have summarised the photographer's adventurous lens as a parting gift to his admirers.

Though the exhibitions featured other artists, the contents, thematically, were vintage Ojeikere. In the two-man show, Networks and Voids that featured American painter Gary Stephens, the theme was headdress. Indeed, one of the most pronounced themes of Ojeikere is lady’s headdress, particularly the gele and woven African native hairstyles. While Stephens had also been painting different headdress from his Johannesburg, South Africa base, his contact with Ojeikere's work made some other impacts. In fact, Stephens disclosed during the show’s preview that though he had been showing great interest in headdresses across the genders ahead of his first visit to Nigeria, but in Lagos ladies’ styles, “I got more fascinated”. The interest, Stephens recalled, was fueled after meeting Ojeikere. “I had made quite a lot of drawings of braided hairstyles. But when I came to Lagos, it was great meeting Ojeikere and I immediately showed interest in his works of hair styles.”

Also, Stephens’ all black and white display of huge size paintings at the show, he added was “a tribute to Ojeikere,” whose works were always in the non-colour tones.

Ojeijere (right), with co-exhbitor, American painter, Gary Stephens during one of his last two exhibitions in Lagos.

 Ojeikere’s headdress theme identity has been traced to the 1970s vogue of Onile gogoro, The photographer who was inspired by the trendy Lagos fashion scene of the 1970s recalled how he had been documenting headdresses over a decade. “My collection of hairstyles started in 1956,” he said, describing his venture into the theme then as a “sub-conscious” passion. But it was during the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) that he deliberately expanded his interest in the gele headdress. “As we speak, most people think I don’t do any other work apart from hairstyles,” he stated before Networks and Voids opened.

Apparently a conservative, yet futuristic, Ojeikere whose camera has documented Nigerian women’s headdresses in the past 50 years, had issue with the contemporary hair dressing of African women. He argued that ladies’ headdress devoid of the original native styles is incomplete. He was happy that he had the vision to document the old styles. “I actually lost the styles of the 1950s when Nigerian women were plaiting their hair”. But he was on alert after the 1960 independence of Nigeria, which brought wig, and replaced the native braiding. “So, when the 1950s style returned after independence and in 1970s, I grabbed the opportunity.”

  Ojeikere actually saw today, perhaps tomorrow too. He feared that in the future, contemporaneity might push trend to a state “when women would have no hair on their head.”

  At the Voyage Retour, Ojeikere's work was the star presentation. Apart from the fact that his works on display at the event were “never seen before in public space anywhere in the world,” the exhibition also provided a 30 minutes video documentary fresh from the cutting room. Produced by Tam Fiofori, the documentary, which welcomed visitors at the entrance of the new venue captured the photographer's over 50 years career in brief.

However, of great significance was the art exhibition that marked his 80th birthday.
In over 50 years of practice, Ojeikere was a legend whose glorious moments as a photo artist of masterly touch.
  For the exhibition, Ojeikere had a different idea of how to celebrate his birthday. It was a pleasant shock that betrayed his well known breathtaking and classic captures.

  The, exhibits titled J.D. Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer, and held at Frameshop Extra, Yaba, Lagos were mostly about his personal life, and taken over a period of 50 years. More 'shocking', the works were taken by unknown photographers.
Are these works on display selected from some of his self-taken shots? “Not at all; they are all taken by my colleagues,” the artist said after leading visitors through the exhibits.

Some of such works included 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. 
If 0ojeikere was not attractive to national collection, the exhibition held in the year of Nigeria's 50th independence anniversary was too coincidental and significant to ignore.  Ojeikere was one of the few known living photographers then 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.
  Other works included those 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 the picture showed part of photography process of that period. Another archival piece was a threesome of the artist and two colleagues, Testing new Camera With Colleagues, (1957).

Between the generation of Ojeikere and today's photographers the shift was not exactly about analoque vs digital; the professional orientation differs.  “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 however cautioned 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.”

One of Ojeikere's techniques or styles was capturing his subjects from the back angle, with slight profile perspective to emphasise the sculptural characteristics of the hairstyle, even in picture.
 From the confine of the rigid work experience in the ministry of information, Ojeikere freed his skill. “I said to myself that I must not forget that that is beyond what I was doing in the Ministry of Information, the work was too monotonous. I didn’t think I was made for just taking photographs of his events like birthday, wedding; they wer not challenging for me.”

With weekly earning as a regular photographer to the University College Press, Ibadan,  “making between £5 to £7;” he thought there was a prospect in freelancing compared to “only £8 as photographer working for government.”

 From government job, he got into ad photography when he got a job at Lintas  in Lagos. Artist, Erhabor Emokpae who was also working at Lintas and later did the frieze ring of the National Theatre complex, Iganmu, Lagos was influential in encouraging him to cover the FESTAC 77 event.  he asked me to cover it. He said to me, ‘”I wasn not among the official photographers of FESTAC 77,  but I always frequent the events take photographs. My experience there inspired me to go into documentary photography.”

  From the memory of Ojeikere’s early years in documentary photography, a picture taken at his debut exhibition was a display during the 60 th birthday show. It’s a group picture taken at the venue, Nigerian Art Council, featuring other artists, including his friend, sculptor Emokpae.

Still on the generational shift in photography, Ojeikere argued that new photographers are at advantage for not going through the process of taking pictures without loading films. “We nenver imagined that there would be a period like this. But like I always say, the creativity makes the photographer a professional, not the technology.”

As one of the most exhibited African photographers, within and outside the continent, Ojeikere has been documented in J. D. Okhai Ojeikere: Photographs, a book on African hairstyles and culture authored by a French curator, Andre Magrin, He recalled how Magrin saved him from a torturous journey of over a decade search for a publisher. I was at the Contemporary Museum of Fine Art in Paris, France. That was where my book on Hair Styles was launched. He lamented how the  Culture section of the then Ministry of Information refused to assist him  “They told me to give them the copyright, and I said no.” But in 1998, hope, he said appraed when Magnin came to Nigeria from France. “He was looking for a photo artist. I was lucky when Fiofori brought him to my house.”

During one of his exhibitions.
The book was eventually launched in France. With this book I know that I have scored a major landmark in Nigerian art.”
 Among his international outings was a tour exhibition 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.
 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.
  Less than 24 hours after his death, one of his sons. and photographer, Amaize Ojeikere described his father “as a master, a great photographer, wonderful father who gave all to his children.”
  Amaize noted his father’s career as full of commitment of a professional who “worked seriously and precisely.” He however argued that Ojeikere also documented architectures as well as the more prominent women hairs styles and the gele headdress.
  In 2011 Ojeikere was one of the three recipients at the year’s edition of Bangladeshi-organized International Festival of Photography awards. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award.
 The awards, according to the organisers, were given to photographers in recognition of “outstanding contribution to photography and society”. Mexican Pedro Mayer and Bangladeshi Naib Uddin Ahmed were the other two photographers recogised at the event.

 Also in the same year, he was in Finland for a solo exhbition titled
Moments of Beauty, which was presented to the public by the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos as part of the ARS11 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland.   

Ojeikere left an evolving dynasty of photography professionals in the Ojeikere family. Apart from Amaize, there is Iria who runs a photography laboratory just as the children collectively operate Frameshop Extra, a framing studio. Also one of the works on display at Ojeikere’s 80 th birthday exhibition was taken by the artist’s grandson, Okhaifo Ojeikere, who was barely six years old.  
  One of his younger colleagues, a veteran photographer Tam Fiofori who said the news of Ojeikere’s death came as a surprise disclosed that he and the deceased spoke on Tuesday "and there was no sign of illness in him." Fiofori who shot a 30 minutes documentary film on Ojeikere last year described the deceased as "we maade a 30 minutes documentary of him last year. And just few days ago I was discussing with him how we can transcribe a three hours interv iew on him into a book," Fiofori explained of his last memory of the photo artist. "He was one of Africa's greatest photographers who spent his career documenting African culture." Fiofori added that though his death was a big loss, "the only consolation is that he has left a huge collection behind as unparallel legacy."

Curator and director at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, Bisi Silva, who had worked with Ojeikere on several exhibitions in Nigeria and overseas stated: “I remain in shock, though I guess I shouldn't be because  it happened unexpectedly though expected. We were quite close and I will miss him calling me almost weekly and asking "when are you coming? when we go see o?, All this your travel, travel na wa o!" Then we would both laugh. He was an intelligent, generous, kind and simple man. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet him, work with him, have access to his incredible archive and to spend so much time talking to him.   Though we are not contemporaries, I can confidently say that he was a very, very good friend. We could talk about everything and anything and we even had our arguments.  They saying in Africa is that when an old person dies it is like a library burning down. But in the case of Ojeikere has left an incredible archive of images that will stay with us forever and forever. He has done his work. May he rest in perfect peace.”
  The president, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) Oliver Enwonwu described Ojeikere as one of Africa's most iconic photographers. “His contributions to the medium were immense, and some of his works including his hairstyle series were amongst the best - known in the world.

Ojeikere was a committed member of the SNA, and at his age was always present at meetings , participated in the Society's group exhibitions, and attended individual shows by other member artists.

“The exhibition traveled to London last October as part of Omenka Gallery's presentation at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. I t also forms part of Omenka's presentation at this year's edition of Art 14,London in February this year.
  “Ojeikere was a hardworking and consummate professional. He was an inspiration to us all,  especially the younger generation of photographers who have tried to follow in his footsteps. The Society of Nigerian Artists and the entire Nigerian arts community mourns him. Papa will be sorely missed but his contributions to the growth and respectability of photography as a profession in Nigeria, his mentorship, advice and kind words of encouragement to the younger generation of artists, and an iconic body of work built over 6 decades ,remain his lasting legacy.”

 One of Nigeria’s new generation photographers who is also making impressive international outing, Uche James Iroha argued that Ojeikere was one of the few, perhaps, “the only photographer in his era who devoted his career to capturing and preserving African cultural heritage as a people.” He noted that thought his death was a loss, “we are celebrating a special individual.”

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