By Tajudeen Sowole
Photographer Mudi Yahaya’s exhibition titled Conrad’s Circus, For Crown and Country, challenges the West’s perception of Africa as heart of ‘darkness’.
Yahaya’s exhibition engages the 20th Century book, Heart of Darkness, by Briton, Joseph Conrad, who seems to have set the template for Western countries’ perception of Africa.
Shown at the Goethe Institut, City Hall, Lagos Island, the photography and video installation also bring back the memory of the pre-digital imaging period when emulsion-based film reigned.
Presented in black and white, each of the works underscores the conceptual characteristic of the photographer. Yahaya’s penchant for bringing creative depth into figural content was conspicuous in his last solo exhibition, The Ruptured Landscape: On The Constructions Of Difference, even within the sphere of modeling photography.
One of Mudi Yahaya’s works For Crown+ Country Series 1- X, 2011
He takes this conceptual identity to a new level in Conrad’s Circus, For Crown and Country, as most of the images project surrealism, courtesy of matting archival film images with digital shots.
Thematically, Yahaya’s Conrad’s Circus… is about nationhood, leadership and the disconnect in progression, after independence from the British colonial masters. He declared that his work “is an exploration into the power and influence of Joseph Conrad’s singular perception of Africa,” which has endured and influenced “stereotypes” about the continent till date.
Although Conrad’s verdict on Africa as a pre-history or stone-age haven is disturbing, but the author and the Nigerian photographer appear to share one thing in common. Both agree on colonialists and political elites’ subconscious conspiracy, which has truncated the prospect of the continent.
Yahaya, however insists that the trauma of distortion about the continent should be blamed on Conrad and others whose work thrives in stereotypes. “It is well known that the victor of any battle writes the history of the event.” He demanded to know the subtractions and additions in Nigerian history. “How does problematic history affect the course of a nation?”
Perhaps, the answer lies in this show, which he described as his thoughts on “how people remember and forget” crucial periods, particularly in the quest for nationhood.
In one of the surreal composites, For Crown+ Country Series, two turbaned men, seated Queen of England and two colonial officers, matted on a graveyard, strengthens the debate about Nigeria’s survival as a united country.
Conrad’s Circus Series 1-X, 2011
If there is any line to be drawn between innocent or good intention of Nigeria’s post-colonial political elites and the current fragile state of the country, the video installation version of For Crown+ Country Series provides an insight. The dialogue goes thus between the colonial masters and the Africans: “Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future of Nigeria?” The turbaned man responds, “I am highly optimistic.”
And more worrisome, quite a number of the works are populated with the graveyard images. What is the metaphor about these archival images on graveyards? “Cemeteries are sites of memory and history,” Yahaya explained.
In another of the series, an unidentified turbaned emir, a sculptural signpost and a colonial official, all matted on the graveyard reminds of the passage of time. The sign reads: “In memory of Secretary Williams Peters, first royal scouts; died at Zugeru on the 18th May, 1904.”
About words on marble on the role of religion in nation building, Yahaya dips into archive to get the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo’s thoughts, which says, “Religious leaders not need to be intolerant of politicians or of their maneuvers for vantage position.”
From the military era come the representational archival images, which result in composites such as General Olusegun Obasanjo and his former Chief of Staff, Major General Shehu Yar’Adua chatting in a picture matted on a street of ruins.
And to remind some of the living political elites of their vituperations or words of wisdom from the past, Obasanjo is quoted in one of the inscriptions. The text attached to one of the exhibits, Conrad Circus Series 1 x, 2011 states: Any prolonged military rule in the form of diarchy or any other arrangement would not only bring the armed forces into disrepute, but would amount to a declaration of war against the sovereign right of the people of Nigeria to choose their own leader and conduct their affairs in accordance with the constitution.
This is an apparent reference to General Ibrahim Banbangida’s marathon political transition project of the late 1980s, which ended in a colossal misadventure in 1993.
Another of similar statesmanship words is from the late politician, Mallam Aminu Kano. Culled from a 1978 interview, the politician states …you see, Nigeria is a country of contradictions and we always like to work on emotions and unfounded things. We just want to say yes or no without regards to ethics.
Photographer Yahaya (speaking) during auctionthe exhibition, and (right) is the Director of Goethe-Institut, Marc-Andre Schmamachter Annekathrin Ebert
INDEED, a fragmented nation such as Nigeria is better understood in the presentation of the video installation of the exhibition. It depicts this in a TV set, which has poor reception. Yahaya narrated that “as the viewer tunes in to different channels: there is the colonial imperialist pre/post independence channel, the Nigerian politicians channel, the Nigerian military channel, the human rights channel, the channel of foreign media manipulation and an ethnic minority channel.” He noted that each channel offers a logical position for their purpose when viewed individually. However, in viewing all the channels at the same time “one can observe how a lot of nuanced messages are ‘lost in transmission’ and how bad reception can cause miscommunication and alter history.”