Imagine destroying and remaking Out of Africa. The 1985 film that won 7 academy awards cemented the colonial idea that Africa was an exotic, strange wilderness for Europeans to explore and over which Africans had no agency. The year the film was released, one of the worst famines in living memory devastated Ethiopia, and images of starving, malnourished African bodies proliferated.
Imagine destroying and remaking Out of Africa is the title of one among many incisive, exploratory projects questioning history as we know it at LagosPhoto this year. Those two reductive and parallel narratives about Africa have been persistent in visual culture, and now, in the spirit of the day, time is up. African artists and photographs are ready to create a new history.
Eight years ago, a well-known figure on the Lagos art scene, Azu Nwagbogu, nervously opened the first edition of LagosPhoto to more than a thousand guests in attendance at the Eko Hotel & Suites. Back in 2010, Nwagbogu, who had already got a non-profit arts organisation, African Artists Foundation, off the ground and running successfully for several years, was ready for a new challenge, and photography–the most fast-paced, influential and democratic medium–was the perfect fit for his hometown, where innovation and invention is on every street. LagosPhoto was born: the first, and still the only festival dedicated to photography in Nigeria.
Nwagbogu has keenly supported African artists and has been emphatic about the role of photography in making African artists visible outside of the continent. Not only does photography a way to access the international scene, but it is important in reshaping the narrative of African countries and cultures, from an African perspective. “We need to tell our own authentic visual stories that feel truthful and consistent,” Nwagbogu asserts, explaining the motive behind the festival’s theme for 2018, ‘Time Is Gone’–referring to a common Nigerian idiom to express immediate action is needed. “A new narrative can only be accomplished if we can understand the impacts and meanings of history and merge our personal stories with the past.” Nwagbogu adds.
LagosPhoto–which opened this year on October 27th–invited twenty-five artists from eighteen countries to “wrestle with this idea of urgency”.
“When we first talked about the theme it became very clear that each curator had quite disparate associations with the title and we decided to embrace this polyphony of perspectives.” Nwagbogu says. “Time as a subject is a very individual and complex experience, determined by socio-cultural, political, historical and personal conditions. This diversity is reflected in the curatorial vision and the selection of works.”
In the early years, LagosPhoto was mostly focused on local, Nigerian names, and the numbers of exhibitors has fluctuated each year, but has included artists from Juno Calypso to Samuel Fosso. This year, given the festival’s direction, a team of four curators have selected a majority of projects by artists living on the continent and give a “fluid female perspective,” as Nwagbogu puts it. Projects on show include Adji Dieye’s Red Fever, retracing the impact of socialism across Africa, and Amanda Ihemebiri’s series looking at how the physical environment and landmark buildings in Lagos have contributed to a sense of local and national history. Karl Ohiri, meanwhile, with his ongoing Lagos Studio Archives, rescues the photographs of the people Lagos, as analogue pictures are abandoned in favour of digital. Among the more established names presented are Alfredo Jaar and Mary Evans.
LagosPhoto has also been part of an exciting cultural boom in the most populated city on the African continent. Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, so it’s no wonder Lagos has become such a draw for curators, galleries and artists in recent years. Collectors are now flocking there too, with the launch of ArtX Lagos, an initiative of impassioned entrepreneur, Tokini Peterside, in 2016 — also taking place in November on Victoria Island. This year Nigerian-born, London-based artist Yinka Shonibare presented work at ArtX Lagos for the first time. In 2020, he will open a project space in Lagos.
Perhaps one of the projects to most lucidly visualise LagosPhoto’s politically-charged theme is Ismail Bahri’s video work, Film a Blanc. Shot during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Bahri followed the funeral procession of the assassinated politician Mohamed Brahmi – but he covered his camera lens with a piece of paper, leaving our view obscured. It speaks volumes about the fragility of media, information and visibility – asking us to question what we see, and what we choose not to. Western-centered, capitalist and patriarchal narratives must be continually challenged, and across the festival’s venues, the exhibiting artists destabilise the structures that currently dominate our world.
The time to be in Lagos, it seems, is now.