Within the last decade or so, Nigeria’s contemporary arts scene – in all its manifestations – has had a serious growth spurt. It’s therefore no surprise that more and more global curators and art critics have started to sit up and take notice. It seems that photography is definitely one of the mediums that’s sparking a great amount of interest both inside and beyond the African continent, with Lagos helping to further highlight Africa’s modern and visual narratives via an innovative annual event.
Now in its fifth year, the month-long Lagos Photo Festival is the first and only international arts festival of photography in Nigeria. Founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Azu Nwagbogu, its programme features local and international artist presentations, workshops, discussions and small and large-scale displays at indoor and outdoor spaces throughout the city.
Coming under the umbrella of the African Artists’ Foundation, an organisation that promotes contemporary African art, the focus on still camerawork has encouraged contributions from African and non-African photographers from Europe, the USA and elsewhere, all of them turning their collective lenses towards various African regions in order to showcase their creative work. In essence, the imagination and content at each Lagos Photo Festival is underpinned by African stories, although there’s an undeniably international vibe and influence at each event.
Big names who’ve previously featured in the festival include award-winning Nigerian photographer George Osodi as well as globetrotting photographer Andrew Esiebo and photographic artist Adeola Olagunju. Last year, Mouhamadou Moustapha Sow’s digital prints highlighted a life spent in an urban Senegalese landscape, while the renowned Cameroonian artist Samuel Fosso launched his series ‘The Emperor of Africa’, which included large-scale self-portraits of the artist looking unquestionably resplendent as an ‘Africanised’ version of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
Perhaps influenced by Fosso’s style of using theatre and identity in his images, two strong themes for this year’s exhibition are ‘Staging Reality, Documentary Fiction’, with an accompanying competition, ‘Mastering the Selfie’.
Exhibitors for 2014 include Patrick Willocq, whose series‘I am Walé Respect Me’ has the initiation rituals of the Ekonda pygmies of the DRC as an influence. The Walé of his images refers to the young mothers (usually 15 to 18) who, during a two to five year time span of ‘seclusion,’ return to their parents for strict care and a taboo on sex. This is broken by a dancing and singing ritual at the end of the designated period of solitude, and Willocq’s staged images are an homage to the practice, as well as being a reference to the fact that the custom is rapidly disappearing from Central African culture. His photographic crew was brought together as a result of ‘a unique collaboration with five pygmy women, their respective clans, an ethnomusicologist, an artist and many artisans of the forest’ for aunique experience of documenting a ‘tribute to motherhood, fertility and femininity.’ Aside from exhibiting at the Lagos Photo Festival, the series has also showcased in the USA, Portugal and Germany.
A particular festival favourite is the Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel who has gained numerous accolades over the last couple of years with her award-winning 'Afronauts' series, a photojournalistic take on a real-life story of a failed 1960s Zambian space mission. She featured a selection of those images at last year’s festival, and she returns again this year with a new series that’s a perfect fit for the Staging Reality category. Using the 1954 novel, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, de Middel uses models – many of them curiously outfitted and posed in Lagos locations – under the title ‘This is What Hatred Did,’ which was the last line from Tutuola’s book.
A particularly playful component to Lagos Photo Festival is the Mastering the Selfie category. As a competition, it opens the door to all levels of photographers who are invited to engage with the global phenomenon of the ‘hand held’ selfie. In the build up to the festival’s October launch, snapshots based on monthly themes of fashion, nightlife, architecture and celebrity have gone onto the Lagos Photo Mobile App to create an online archive. This is a fantastic way to get right underneath the stories, psyches and visual nuances of Lagos, the rest of Nigeria and other areas in Africa, from a broad range of observers who’ll be creating a wonderful document of the changing nature of the continent’s photography.
The combination of international artists, experimental themes, and a local and global outlook reveals a boldness behind the event that probably gained momentum during the festival’s second year (2012). During that period a three-year contributing exhibition contract was signed between Lagos Photo Festival and the Netherlands-based World Press Photo, which has a sixty-year track record of showcasing photojournalistic images from around the world. This partnership between Western Europe and West Africa creates a perfect opportunity to share the best in press photography with the wider Lagos community, and provides further inspiration and opportunities for local photographers seeking audiences beyond Nigeria’s borders.
The depth of Lagos Photo Festival’s programming comes through in other projects and partnerships including the LagosPhoto 5th Anniversary edition book launch, a Youth Empowerment through Contemporary Art project with courses and mentorship for secondary school Lagosians, an outdoor World Press Photo Exhibition at Freedom Park in Lagos Island and a collaboration with the Berlin-based online portal – piclet.org – that runs the POPCAP prize for contemporary African photography.
Header image: From the ‘I am Walé Respect Me’ series © Patrick Willocq
Have you attended the Lagos Photo Festival before? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Nana Ocran
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About the author: NanaNana Ocran
Nana Ocran is a London-based writer and editor specialising in contemporary African culture. She was Editor-in-Chief for the Time Out Group’s series of guides to Lagos and Abuja and has consulted on and established publications on West African culture for the Danish Film Institute, the Arts Council England and the Institute of International Visual Arts. She was a nominee for CNN’s African Journalist of the Year (2011), and curatorial advisor for the Afrofuture programme at La Rinascente during Milan Design Week 2013. Nana is a regular features writer for Arik Airline’s in flight magazine, Wings, in which she writes about art, lifestyle, innovation and enterprise issues relating to Arik’s African, European and US destinations. She has been a jury member for Film Africa (London) and the Festival del Cinema Africano, d'Asia e America Latina (Milan).