Sunday 26 October 2014

With Power and Powers, James-Iroha’s lens focuses on elusive electricity in Nigeria

By Tajudeen Sowole
LOOKING at electric power challenge in Nigeria, Uche James-Iroha uses his photography to highlight how despite past and present government’s efforts to correct the problem, the issue appears unsolvable.

In black and white prints on canvas, the works, which goes into a solo art show titled Power and Powers, opens on November 8 at Omenka Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Krazy Bill Klan (KBK) a photography work by Uche James-Iroha
Aside from its aesthetics, the works add voices to the perception that electric power challenge in the country is as a result of conspiracy. The conspiracy theory, according James-Iroha's Power and Powers are in two folds: political and the distribution of electricity.

Largely conceptualised and dramatised, the works could pass for a film director's storyboard as models' portrayal of the issues help in driving home the message. While colour strengthens populism of photography in contemporary terms, James-Iroha has an opposite view for his work. For Power and Powers, the concept takes priority. The works, in black and white, indeed, subdue the tungsten-lit atmosphere of the gallery. “These are images that explore the dark and unprogressive romance between political power and electrical power distribution in Nigeria," James-Iroha told select guests during the preview.

The project itself has a story of despair behind its inspiration. Iroha recalled that five years ago, when he started compiling the works, someone alerted him that if the project was not ready as soon as possible, the concept might be irrelevant because Nigeria will soon overcome her power challenge in about a year. Nevertheless, the optimism, James-Iroha explained, urged him further into the body of work, hoping that electric power will be stable, and the concept will take another form. But power remained elusive as he presented the works for preview.

The complexity of the power sector has attracted quite a volume of commentaries and individual-based pieces of works within the visual arts environment. However, James-Iroha’s Power and Powers is among a few of such that have works dedicated to the issue.

He argued: “Nigeria is by far the most populous nation in the continent with vast human and material resources and enormous potential, but electricity is still a big issue.” He aligned with the popular argument that the country’s age long erratic power supply has the reality of deceit, where political office seekers clearly use the promise of electricity as bait to get elective offices.

James-Iroha pointed out how the power challenge has hindered laudable projects: “It is interesting to know that tons of white elephant projects, which include a cashless economic system and automated rail transport are some of the works gulping huge budgets and will all depend on an efficient electric supply to run.”

While the political forces have been having a field day conspiring with the diesel and electricity generating set merchants to rape the nation, the battle for survival, according to one of the works always shift to the streets between the poor masses and the power workers.

A street capture titled After The Raid explains this much. Not exactly a fisticuffs on the street, but the aura of disconnected cables and the ugly sight it adds to skyline speaks so much about the bitterness among the state of confusion in a land of plenty.
But sometimes the consumers of ‘no light’ situation often sympathise with the electricity workers. James-Iroha shared an experience. He had gone to pay his bill, but found out that even the PHCN office there was no light; the office was running on generating set.” 

With increasing hope, James-Iroha’s Power and Powers concludes that Nigerians are under the terror that could be likened to what the African-Americans in the U.S. went through during the reign of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and 60s. For the photography show, the work that replicates and adapts the dark period is tiled Krazy Bill Klan (KBK). Just as the KKK, the three masked figures are in the white.

In Nigeria, estimated bills otherwise known as ‘Crazy bill”, which usually shoots up charges by as much as 1000 per cent is common.  

Shot with Nikkon camera, a brand that supports the show, the works, according to Omenka Gallery goes beyond the satire of the power situation in Nigeria.  “The works are largely a critique of a corrupt leadership that proffers cosmetic solutions to the persistent issue of electric power supply and serve as a springboard for confronting issues that continue to face Nigerians today. Perhaps, no singular contemporary Nigerian artist has created a singular body of work that mounts a sustained challenge on such an important issue, “said Oliver Enwonwu, curator of the exhibition and Director at Omenka.
Nikkon is the market leader in camera and imaging technologies. Nikon cameras, Nikkor, its brand of lenses and speed lights are available and fully distributed in Nigeria with one-year warranty by New Creation International Worldwide Link Nigeria Limited.
  Omenka said: “We represents a fine selection of established and emerging contemporary African and international artists working in diverse media. Omenka stimulates critical discourse on African art through solo, group and large themed shows accompanied by informed, scholarly catalogues.

“In ensuring sustainable presence for African art within a global context, Omenka participates in major events like Art Dubai, Joburg Art Fair, Cape Town Art Fair, Cologne Paper Art, Docks Art Fair, Lyon, LOOP, Barcelona, Art14, and 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

Additionally, it encourages a cross fertilisation of ideas by collaborating with leading galleries across the world to bring the works of many international artists to Nigeria, often for the first time. Omenka Gallery also organises workshops and residencies to encourage curatorial and professional artistic development.

James-Iroha was born in 1972. He studied sculpture at the University of Port Harcourt, graduating in 1995. A year later, he became interested in photography and has since exhibited extensively in Nigeria and around the world. The Prince Claus Fund, a Netherlands-based organisation that promotes inter-cultural exchange, has described him as the ‘leading light of a new generation of Nigerian photographers.”

In his diverse work, he fuses the creative language of imagery with the documentation of everyday reality while addressing wide-ranging issues from economic imperialism to the brutal relationships, which exist among races, social class and gender. He is also the director of Photo Garage, which offers an indigenous platform for domestic and global intellectual photography exchanges. He is also the director of Depth of Field (DoF), a photography collective based in Lagos.

James-Iroha has been honoured with the Elan Prize at the African Photography Encounters in Mali, 2005 for his work Fire, Flesh and Blood, as well as the Prince Claus Award, 2008 for his work in supporting young artists and promoting photography as an art in Nigeria.
(First published in The Guardian, Friday, October 24, 2014).

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