Lagos, Nigeria: Capital of Photography – Érika Nimis

[Winter 2016]
Andrew Esiebo, Lagos Overview, from the series Mutation 2015

Andrew Esiebo, Lagos Overview, from the series Mutation 2015

by Érika Nimis

Lagos – Eko in the Yoruba language – is a typical megalopolis. With its some twenty million inhabitants, it is the economic and cultural heart and soul of Nigeria, which is the birthplace of Wole Soyinka (Nobel Prize for literature) and Fela Kuti (the father of Afrobeat) and the home of Nollywood (the third-largest movie industry in the world). “Lagos la mégalo,” a “centre of excellence” (according to the licence plates) is also a “capital of chaos, ” with its monster “go- slows” (traffic jams) and random brownouts that make the city the most plugged-in – to generators. One thing is certain: the hustle and bustle of the “capital of Africa” leaves no one indifferent. And so it is not surprising that Lagos has become a breeding ground for talents of all types.

In Lagos, the photography sector has seen an enthusiastic revival since the turn of the millennium; it seems that a new artist emerges every day (or almost), if one judges by the different spaces and events (art centres, galleries, festivals) devoted to the fixed image in this city that never sleeps. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a quarter of the continent’s population, and also its top economic power, due mainly to oil exports. As this economic prosperity, consolidated by relative political stability1, has taken hold, photographic initiatives have proliferated. These initiatives are characterized by a spirit of very strong entrepreneurship, for, al- though the country is relatively wealthy, no government policy exists to support arts and artists. Thus, a few individuals (curators, patrons, artists), who have a wealth of experience abroad and hope to transmit their knowledge to the younger generations, play an essential role.

A Brief History. This new and burgeoning scene did not spring out of nowhere but is anchored in Lagosian history. A port city on the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is connected to the rest of the world and has been open to photography since it was invented. It welcomed photographers passing through, then photographers who opened studios there in the 1880s – mainly on Lagos Island, where a community of repatriated “Brazilians” settled (following the gradual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade).

Starting in the 1920s, connections with Great Britain and the United States (where the élites went for their education) allowed for the emergence of a fertile photographic scene that claimed the “Stieglitz tradition.”2 Among the great figures in the history of Lagosian photography (in studio photography, art photography, and photojournalism) are Jackie Phillips, Billyrose, Peter Obe (whose photographs of the Biafra war were seen around the world), J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Tam Fiofori, and Sunmi Smart-Cole. Today, photography is, more than ever, a recognized profession, increasingly feminized, taught in university,3 and, better still, a means of expression that draws new practitioners…
Translated by Käthe Roth

1 In late March 2015, a transparent presidential election took place, democratically electing Muhammadu Buhari, the former military dictator (from 1983 to 1985).
2 Y. Ogunbiyi, “Introduction,” The Photography of Sunmi Smart-Cole (Lagos: Daily Times of Nigeria LTS, Ibadan, Bookcraft, 1991), xiii. This text is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in The Guardian (January 15, 1984).
3 Universities (such as those in Zaria and Nsukka) and the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, and even the Nigerian Institute of Journalism have never adequately valued the teaching of photography, even though – good news – the University of Port-Harcourt soon plans to open a photography section named for the first Nigerian photographer, Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873–1905), who was born in the region.

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