Saturday, 2 November 2013

'Networks and Voids'…weaving Stephens’ art, Ojeikere’s women into a story


By Tajudeen Sowole

When American painter, Gary Stephens showed interest in the work of renowned photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, the synergy that would later exist between them, led to a joint art exhibition, which highlights the latter’s decades-old identity of celebrating the uniqueness of Nigerian women’s native headdresses. 

Visitors viewing Networks and Voids.
  
At Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, the headdresses - expressed in hair braiding and native Yoruba headwear gele - are depicted in creative contents of photography and drawings titled Networks and Voids.


The exhibition, quite of note, stresses art’s borderless value as resonates in the two artists who are cultures and generations apart. Ojeikere, 83, whose works on Nigerian women’s headdresses have been shown at exhibitions over the decades across Europe and the U.S is a master of the lens. Stephens, 51, a recent convert, started showing interest in African women’s headdresses from his Johannesburg, South Africa base, but got fully involved when he visited Lagos last year.


Having come across Nigerian women’s headdresses on his first visit to Lagos, Stephens seems to be developing a chain of thematic works after he showed a body of paintings and drawings titled Ankara Portraits at the same gallery, last year. Earlier, Stephens was in Lagos where his work was briefly on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, for his Artist’s Talk.
  While Networks and Voids offers Stephens a broader opportunity to focus on women’s headdress, the deliberate choice of presenting his entire works in black and white is, indeed, a tribute to Ojeikere who has, over the decades, personified monochromatic presentation of photography in Nigeria and the Diaspora; Ojeikere’s work is mostly in black and white. For Stephens, some of the works shown include the drawings captured in Lagos during his second visit, stressing an increased interest in the headdress theme. He discloses that though he had been showing great interest in headdresses across the genders ahead of his first visit to Nigeria, but in Lagos ladies’ styles, “I got more fascinated”. The interest, Stephens recalls, was fueled after meeting Ojeikere. “I had made quite a lot of drawings of braided hairstyles. But when I came to Lagos, it was great meeting Ojeikere and I immediately showed interest in his works of hair styles”.

Some of Ojeikere’s works in the show are quite familiar, particularly of the Onile gogoro (high rising house) hair styles – reminiscence of the springing up of high rise buildings on the Lagos Island streetscapes in the 1970s – from which the style got his name. The Onile gogoro style actually added to the list of existing native hair weaving names such as suku, Ipako elede, among several old names given to the styles.
      
However, before the 1970s vogue of Onile gogoro, Ojeikere had been documenting headdresses over a decade. “My collection of hairstyles stated in 1956”, he recalls what he describes as a “sub-conscious” passion. But it was during the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) that he deliberately expanded his interest in the gele headdress. Ever since then, Ojeikere’s work is synonymous with woven hairstyle and gele such that his other themes have been blurred from his bio. “As we speak, most people think I don’t do any other work apart from hairstyles”, the octogenarian says.

In huge sizes, Stephens’ works in Networks and Voids also strengthens the artist’s technique of creating optical illusion as he steps up the effect by boxing the drawing in a glass frame that equally has lines. Quite of note, the lines on the opaque-cover connect with the pleating technique of the canvas, hence an animation effect. When he showed in Lagos last year, the works, which included both male and female head wears - caps or hats for men – were in paintings and few drawings, the folding technique was indeed innovative, though an evolving process then.

And as he steps up the technique, it would be of great interest to see some of the works in colour.  An all-black and white display appears to have  the technique of something, isn’t it? Maybe yes, but the non-colour presentation of the works, Stephens concedes, “is a tribute to Ojeikere”.

 As fascinated as Stephens was to “the varieties of braiding” he has seen in Lagos, some of the people he met, surprisingly, were not so excited. “My models in Nigeria gave me the impression that the braiding that fascinate me are old fashion”, the visitor explains. Indeed, over the last 20 years, hair braiding has changed from the bold, estuary-like and native patterns to thin and hairy or loose styles, which come with all sorts of names such as ‘Ghana weaving’, Senegalese weaving’.

Gary Stephens (left), curator Luciano Uzuegbu and J.D. Ohkai Ojeikere during the opening of the exhbition
For Ojeikere whose camera has documented Nigerian women headdresses in the past 50 years, the contemporary hair dressing devoid of the original native styles is a minus for the African value. He boasts that, it’s a great joy he had the vision to document the old styles after missing the trend of the 1950s. “I actually lost the styles of the 1950s when Nigerian women were plaiting their hair”. The 1960 independence of Nigeria, he notes, brought wig, which replaced the native braiding. “So, when the 1950s style returned after independence and in 1970s, I grabbed the opportunity”. More importantly, he explains that he was so eager to document the hair styles as he feared that in the future, contemporaneity might push trend to a state “when women would have no hair on their head”.


A well-braided woven hairstyle, Ojeikere argues, is the “pride and glory of the African woman”. 

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