/ 24 October 2016

‘The world in our heads’ – an anthology of images at LagosPhoto Festival

A cropped still from Zimbabwean photographer Kudzanai Chiurai's 'Genesis' series
A cropped still from Zimbabwean photographer Kudzanai Chiurai's 'Genesis' series

The LagosPhoto Festival is themed Ritual and Performance: Inherent Risk.

The risk is the courage the subject and photographer must find for the act of posing to morph into an idea or identity, according to the curators’ statement.

The curators are African Arts Foundation (AAF) founder Azu Nwagbogu, documentary photographer and artist Cristina de Middel and Maria Pia Bernardoni, who say the exhibition is pluralistic in its outlook, driven by its curatorial statement that “the grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images”.

The festival includes 39 photographers and two performance artists. There are also film screenings, workshops and discussions, artist presentations and outdoor displays throughout the city. Below are highlights from some of the exhibitors.

Kudzanai Chiurai

Genesis is a series in which artist Kudzanai Chiurai looks at “the men of Livingstone”, David Livingstone’s turncoat entourage that was complicit in his civilising mission.

To break the seemingly perpetual stasis of colonialism, underpinned as it is by doctrine and commerce, Chiurai suggests that one approach would be “to rearm the colonised with usable pasts. Usable pasts are crucial because they become the trans-generational meeting point for one to begin to consider an alternative Afro-future.”

This, for Chiurai, means there is still value in fully understanding the psyche of the colonised, the master-loving slaves who will not only shield the master from rebellion but extoll his virtues for years to come.

#FeesMustFall students’ recalibration of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, for example, is one such reach for a usable past.

There is an interesting tension in the composer’s framing of the current colonial malaise in the Christian invention of uSathane (Satan) that suggests a long reclamation process only now beginning to ascend a steep hill. The Potemkin nature of the set of Genesis suggests a realisation of just how quickly physical structures could be torn down, but the uniforms of Livingstone’s entourage point to the more difficult task of liberating the self first.

Juno Calypso
Joyce/The Honeymoon
(United Kingdom)

A Dream in Green is from Joyce/The Honeymoona series in which Juno’s character Joyce takes self-portraits while clad in green clay body paint. To produce the work, Joyce spent a week alone in the honeymoon suite of a couples resort in Pennsylvania, United States.

An accompanying slide show and video show how intelligently Juno has executed the pictures, with Joyce lampooning prefabricated femininity inside a heart-shaped, sometimes waterless pink jacuzzi. Joyce faces a concave wall of mirrors, meaning you can see her from every angle without seeing much. For most of The Honeymoon video she wears a body sculpting night dress and a wig that is a shade of burgundy, until we see her naked in A Dream in Green.

The brilliance of A Dream in Green is that Joyce denies us the pleasure of pornographically objectifying her while standing svelte, seductive and stark naked in front of us. Through a function of editing and that sturdy clay body paint, Joyce appears simultaneously naked and fully clothed. Her nipples disappear and she loses, to paraphrase the title of Yunus Vally’s quirky documentary, the glow of white women.

For Juno, this represents something of an ugliness. But seen outside the lens of self-consciousness, the cyborg-like figure is patriarchy’s worst nightmare.

Juno’s series won the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award 2016.

Sanne de Wilde
The Island of the Colourblind

“Initiating my visual research in the Federated States of Micronesia, I tried to find ways to envision  how people with achromatopsia see the world,” says Sanne de Wilde. “I tried to see the island through their eyes. Daylight is too bright to bear, moonlight turns night into day, colours dance around in shades we cannot imagine. Imagine flames lighting up in black and white, trees turning pink, waves of grey.”

In T he Island of the Colourblind, De Wilde tries to convey the achromatic lives of the people of Pingelap, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. She takes a form of poetic licence, daring to envisage how the inhabitants might imagine colour. She serves up parrots in black and white, absent greens and varying shades of red.

While conducting her research, De Wilde discovered that the islanders do not see green and red is the most visualised colour. Her photo essay is artful and empathetic, while remaining conscious that she could never, in reality, imagine what it is like to be colour-blind.

Tsoku Maela
Broken Things
(South Africa)

In Broken ThingsTsoku Maela writes that “the greatest form of acceptance is self-acceptance. But it’s not out there, somewhere, waiting to be found. It is right where you stand.”

This is the equivalent of American singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton singing: The reasons for my life cannot be bought or sold.

Broken Things is a life-affirming and quirky appraisal of the quest to survive in a callously racist world. Its fantastical aspects force us to reassess our fixation with the earthly plane.

In one of the photographs, a bridal couple’s insecurities are expounded by the groom’s mummified face and the bride’s Uncle Ruckus-esque physical disability – one malfunctioning eye suggesting a blindness to self. Both ailments are absent when shot from a different angle in another photograph, as the subjects grow into self-acceptance.

Maela makes it clear that, potentially, redemption lies in wait for everybody. His couple not only learns to fall in love with themselves as individuals, but also in love with each other.

Ty Bello

The statement for Ty Bello’s Emmanuel is brief and poetic. It is also suitably callous if one reads the text as a diary entry encapsulating the need to civilise. There is a sleaze to it that blacks out the distance between sex tourism and Willie Lynchism, religious conversion and soliciting.

Of course, our Emmanuel is “beautiful” because he is light-skinned and chiselled. And yet he lies in a milky pool of water having been scrubbed clean. Emmanuel seems spent, as if he has just had the melanin fucked out of him. He may as well be lying in a pool of his own blood, or the cleansing blood of the lamb that was slain.

Bello calls on us to recognise the pervasiveness of the master religion; a pervasiveness indefatigable by time.

In another frame, a topless Emmanuel wears an oversized gold crown, forearms curling upwards as if to mask vulnerability. The way the crown dangles over his head suggests someone headless, with no concept of themselves except a borrowed nativity myth.

Emmanuel is the lamb. Emmanuel is the king. Emmanuel is our prince of peace with nary a piece for himself. His Edwardian crown is merely a crown of thorns.

Kiluanji Kia Henda
Self-Portrait as a White Man

In The Great Italian NudeKiluanji Kia Henda poses naked on a couch in blackface and a Moorish hat. He sits at the edge of a rocky pier mimicking the pose of Édouard Manet’s Olympia. This time, there is no black servant bringing flowers. Rather, the Mediterranean shoreline brings in droves the black servants or the Olympias suggested by Henda’s pose.

His seaside re-enactment, created during a stay in Venice and Lisbon, recalls history as it has unfolded here; genocides past and those to come. In The Great Italian Nude, Henda is royalty disrobed and, with his penis tucked in, a man emasculated and written out of history as well.

Henda says he is “committed to challenging the false claims created by the ideology related to the birth of European nations and racial politics in relation to black people, the ‘Moors’, which have massively imposed the European colonial model … Thus also helping to create a hybridisation of aesthetics.”

In other works, Henda strikes a more strident tone, forcing Europe to confront its intransigence on immigration. Moreover, he has a way of subverting the vulgarity of the black male nude and turning it into a powerful political tool, pushing its exploitation to the brink to remind us of our collective humanity.

The exhibition’s headquarters is at the Eko Hotels & Suites. Other satellite venues include Omenka Gallery, AAF, Temple Muse, Goethe-Institut, Red Door Gallery and Milik. The festival runs until November 21.