By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published in The Guardian Nigeria, November 8, 2015).
In its sixth edition with increasing participants from across the world, LagosPhoto Festival deserves presentation that is commensurate with its content, so one feels this quiet afternoon during a tour of the display inside the lobby of Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos, where the main exhibition of the event is mounted. Over 30 photographers from nearly 20 countries of Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States have converged for the 2015 edition titled Designing Futures. It’s an affirmation of the importance of LagosPhoto in world's global calendar of art, culture and tourism.
Perhaps, the choice of a semi-open space to display the works offers more visibility advantage, at least for now. In future, the main exhibition section of the event should be better presented in a more dignifying space. As LagosPhoto seems to have found a home at Eko Hotel - where all the previous editions were held – a neighbour to futuristic and ongoing Eko Atlantic City project, the event has a challenge, particularly in presentation, to meet the taste of the new environment where it hosts the world.
From its maiden edition till date, the content of LagosPhoto has been as diverse, as opening opportunity for some participants to document or build narratives around the host city. For other photographers, capturing people, places and events around the world to exhibit in Lagos enrich the yearly gathering. In fact, among the beneficiaries of such diversity of content is the curator of Designing Futures, Cristina De Middel. Based in the U.K., De Middel showed her works during the 2013 edition and later did an Amos Tutuola-inspired narrative. For expressing such an interest in the city within short period, she deserves the curatorial responsibility of LagosPhoto 2015 from having built familiarity with the city.
The theme, according to the organisers, African Artists Foundation (AAF), "will be looking at exploring contemporary dialogues surrounding design in Africa." Among the works mounted near the top of the step elevators is My Lagos, 24 frames of portraits of people captured by Zimbabwean, Robin Hammond. Shot in 2014 as part of the photographer's project for National Geographic magazine, the colours of the portrait explain Lagos' multiculturalism. But, the aura of Yoruba native fashion radiates in one of the ladies who adorn the resilience buba-iro-gele attire. Recall that Hammond's work Condemned was picked as Second Prize for the 2014 World Press Photo contest.
Other works mounted on the same walls of the lobby also dwell more on themes with little emphasis over aesthetics. Clearly, individual photographer at the LagosPhoto gathering come with input drawn from diverse projects that, coincidentally, are in tune with the Designing Futures concept.
As the elevator descends to a stop into the basement, aesthetics and themes appear to be louder in most of the works on display at this section of the exhibition. The set of work that generate immediate attention here is a wall covered in familiar materials used for travel bag known to Nigerians as 'Ghana Must Go.' For each of the white- framed photographs, the artist Nobukho Nqaba (South African) extends the travel bag beyond its known function. Quite interesting, the basic narration behind the work titled Unomgcana or Umaskhenkethe (Xhosa word for the plastic mesh travel bag) seems to have a global identity in functionality.
More interesting, Nqaba mentions different names, which the bag is called in relation to the migration focus of the theme. "In South Africa the bag is more commonly known as China bags, Zimbabwe bags, Khumbulekhaya bags or Mashangaanbag," Nqaba explains in her artist statement attached with the work. "These bags are ubiquitous and go by many names: the ‘Ghana must go home’ bag in Nigeria, Bangladeshi bag in the U.K, Turkish bag in Germany, Mexican bag in the US and Guyanese Samsonite in the Caribbean."
For Ima Mfon, Designing Futures is about “Nigerian Identity”, which he expresses and questions in black and white portraits. Mfon brings his American experience in complex identity crisis onto the photography space in Lagos. He notes that the word “Black” has been used, across periods "as a generic descriptive label such as “The angry black guy", “The new black sitcom”, among other mix of expressions.
With works that are almost silhouette, deliberately so, Mfon stresses his idea of what identity means. "I use a plain background to eliminate any cultural or ethnic context, whether of urban disrepair or African wilderness. I want to contest the superficial travel or tourist photography approach to peoples who may be unfamiliar to the photographs’ viewers."
Other exhibiting photographers at the one month long event are from Nigeria, Egypt, France, South Africa, Italy, Ivory Coast, UK, India, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Morocco, DRC, Ghana, Germany, New Zealand, USA, Switzerland and Guinea.
The curator De Middel notes that there is an explosive combination of facts in the last few years, which "placed Africa as a crucial reference and as an inspiration for cutting edge design and 'coolness'."
Ahead of the opening of the exhibition, Director, LagosPhoto Foundation, Azu Nwagbogu, says the festival offers to Africans a platform that enables ownership of images and narratives about Africa and Africans.
“LagosPhoto Festival enables us to understand why we have to take ownership of our own image and our own story or narratives. In the past, the narratives that were made about Africa or our country were given to us by outsiders," he told audience during a preview. "At Lagos Photo, we strive to take ownership of and to communicate this internationally because the world is shrinking around us. So it is very important for us to join the digital revolution and begin to communicate the more impactful vision for the country, the continent and for humanity as a whole.”
Chief Marketing Officer, Etisalat Nigeria, Francesco Angelone explained how LagosPhoto is in sync with the company’s vision of encouraging creativity and innovation through the creation of and support for credible platforms.
“Etisalat is passionate about innovation and creativity. We have also been in the forefront of promoting excellence, nurturing talent and providing platforms for people to express themselves and communicate their ideas."