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Picturing Africa


December 1, 2011

Lagos Photo Festival founder Azu Nwagbogu on combating Afro-pessimism, the dialogue between Africa and the West, and depicting the “other Africa” of industry and intellect.

Photography by Joe Penney

Think Lagos, Nigeria, and a certain nightmarish vision of the future often emerges: an overcrowded, polluted, and chaotic city with a reputation for violent crime. Africa’s fastest-growing city of 15 million (in the continent’s most populous nation) has a checkered past, but that’s quickly changing.

Buoyed by the successful hosting of Fela!—the acclaimed Broadway play was the first to be staged in Nigeria, and played to a packed, raucous house of the country’s growing middle and upper-middle classes for nearly two weeks earlier this year — a rising set of urban Nigerians (often with connections to New York and London) are forging a world-class arts scene that is set to command ever more international attention in the coming years. New boutiques promoting young Nigerian designers are springing up around the city, while galleries play host to emerging talents along with distinguished names like Yinka Shonibare. New publishers promote fresh voices like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben Okri alongside well-established figures like Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize–winner Wole Soyinka, while musicians flock to the mecca of the Afrobeat renaissance, Femi Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine.

Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola, widely regarded as the most successful administrator the city has ever seen, was re-elected in April with 81 percent of the vote. His cleanup of some of the city’s most unruly areas and championing of a rapid bus system have contributed immensely to the current mood of optimism in Africa’s most explosive and energetic mega-city.

It is in this context that LagosPhoto, a new annual photography festival aimed at “representing African sensibilities,” has arisen. Now in its second year, LagosPhoto recently hosted an indoor and outdoor exhibition featuring a mix of forty-one Nigerian and international photographers, workshops, and a fashion exhibition. LagosPhoto attempts to challenge the idea that “discourses on the [African] continent are not necessarily applicable to their object [and that] their nature, their stakes, and their functions are situated elsewhere,” according to Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe.

The festival is the brainchild of Azu Nwagbogu, a native Lagosian and the founder of the African Artists’ Foundation, an organization that works to promote Nigerian artists. Nwagbogu hails from a royal family in Onitsha, southeastern Nigeria, and contemplated entering the world of professional boxing before pursuing a master’s degree in public health from Cambridge University. Upon returning to Nigeria, however, he switched his focus to promoting the arts in Africa’s fastest-growing city and commandeering the information flow from the Global South. I met Nwagbogu during LagosPhoto at the marble-paneled bar at a hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Wearing his trademark orange trousers—designed and sewn in Lagos—he spoke to me at length about the image of the continent he holds dear to his heart, his soft voice betraying the grand scope of his ambition.

—Joe Penney for Guernica

Guernica: How did LagosPhoto come about? What were the beginnings?

Azu Nwagbogu: First of all, I’m a fan of photography as an artistic medium. I flirted with a bunch of ideas around photography: I have set up a photo agency because there’s a massive pool of talented photographers here. But there isn’t really a formal school for photography here, and I thought, how do I stimulate this industry? Beyond that, in my international travels I’ve been to various exhibitions, various art shows around the world. Going out there and being inspired by images captured on the continent, especially in Lagos, made me think, you know, a lot of these guys, foreign photographers coming to Africa, working here, are documenting something really important, and a lot of people back home are not able to dialogue or really engage in these images because they’re not exhibited here. So I thought it would be great to have a festival where local and international photographers can dialogue and exchange ideas, can share work and have a working partnership. This is really the key thing for LagosPhoto—to create a dialogue for local photographers and photographers based elsewhere to tell the stories and give voice to the stories that we feel are underrepresented on the continent.

[Photography is] the fastest growing art tool on the continent, and it’s perhaps the easiest to gain access to.

Guernica: So in a way it’s an initiative to develop image making in Africa?

Azu Nwagbogu: That’s right. To develop the talent pool and also to tell our own stories in our own way. A lot of the stories that we want to tell are less commonly seen or represented in popular media.

Guernica: Why is that important?

Azu Nwagbogu: The key thing is we need to give voice to our people to tell their own stories; we need to give voice to the majority population so that we can actually visualize ourselves the way we want to be. If everything we know about our culture, heritage, and day-to-day living is imparted onto us from outside, then it makes it difficult for us to tell our own stories or to be inspired by the lives that we want for ourselves. So we need to fight against stereotypes. We need to tell the full gamut of the stories, represent the stories that are important to us, our culture, our lifestyle, our existence in the world, our space on the planet, and the way that we see ourselves. And that’s why it’s important to develop photographers and photography: because it’s the fastest growing art tool on the continent, and it’s perhaps the easiest to gain access to.

Guernica: What do you see as the role for Western photographers in this?

Azu Nwagbogu: I think it’s a dual role. When we invite Western photographers here, we ask them and encourage them to partner with local photographers so that there’s a cultural and creative dialogue going on. It’s not a situation where we expect Western photographers to teach or impart. It’s an exchange. The photographers here are doing very well for themselves, but they also need to learn the things that are important in the West, like how to get published, how to get access to mainstream media, how to get your work out there so that people can actually engage with your images. It’s important to create that dialogue, and it’s important to create the cultural discourse and the technical partnership as well.

Guernica: Where is photography in Nigeria now?

Azu Nwagbogu: If you had asked this question only five years ago, the answer would have been completely different. You would only be able to name a handful of photographers doing important work. But now it’s different—there’s a massive talent pool out there, and photographers are beginning to create niches for themselves, which is the key thing that we’re trying to do with LagosPhoto. We’re trying to encourage photographers to focus on specific areas at a time so the work has more depth and meaning. There’s emotion, there’s more investment in it; it’s not just a quick thing that you go out and do for a few days. We want photographers to spend a month, spend six months, spend years developing a project, so that when viewers look at the images they can relate to them in a deeper sense.

When you have 150 million people and you develop the talent out there, it’s just statistics that there’s going to be a massive talent pool.

Guernica: Historically, photography has often been viewed as a trade rather than a social tool in Africa. Do you see that changing?

Azu Nwagbogu: Oh, for sure. The photographers who focus as sociologists, if you’d like, in the community and go out and do work for themselves and develop these projects—it’s something that is growing on the continent over the last few years. Maybe the festival has played an important role in this, I don’t know, but I can tell that a lot more photographers are interested in stories and following projects to a deeper extent. Also because they realize that if it’s not published locally it can probably be published internationally, if it’s done right. That’s something that’s not supported by the government. A Dutch photographer, for example, can get a grant from the arts fund or something, but locally the photographers here don’t get the same support and have to really support themselves by doing projects on the side. This is something that we are well aware of, and we are looking to support the photographers in a deeper way by having artist residencies, supporting photographers to do stories for periods at a time. The African Artists’ Foundation [AAF] has actually engaged a few photographers to follow certain projects for a sustained period and supported the artists for this period, whereby we have a shared ownership of the work. This initiative is actually working.

Guernica: Where do you see photography in Africa going in the next few years, and how do you see AAF’s relationship to that?

Azu Nwagbogu: I think AAF’s LagosPhoto is very important in driving photography in Africa, and especially Nigeria, because a lot more photographers are interested in developing their talent and in the fact that we have this month-long event that really develops photography through workshops, through seminars, through photo-walks, through various tutorials that we set up throughout the year. Nigeria has an incredibly large population, and if we invest in our population we definitely have a chance to develop the community. When you have 150 million people and you develop the talent out there, it’s just statistics that there’s going to be a massive talent pool. If you invest in this population, then you know that you have the chance to develop several future champions, big-name photographers who will do well and do the continent proud. The African Artists’ Foundation depends on a lot of friends and support from both local and international photographers who have come to teach and impart skills to the young and up-and-coming guys, because there are no formal schools for photography here.

Guernica: Why photography? Why is it so important to you?

Azu Nwagbogu: I’m not a photographer myself, it’s not something that I have an overly familiar relationship with. It’s just another medium. What I do in photography I do in other visual art forms—in sculpture, in painting—and if I had more time I’d probably do the same in literature as well. So it’s just another tool, and I think it’s an important tool. You never forget a really powerful image. If you attend a photo exhibition and you truly engage with it, you never really forget the images that resonate with you when it’s all done. My relationship with photography is not very personal, but I have a lot of respect for photography as a tool, as a medium. A lot of people can relate to it, and the opportunities for photography to travel are a lot faster than any other medium.

Guernica: Is there such a thing as African photography, or is the continent too big to speak of it as a whole?

Azu Nwagbogu: You can create patterns. There are definitely patterns of photography on the continent. If you look, for example, at the work of Malick Sidibé, we’ve moved on now. I wouldn’t say there’s any such thing as real African photography, but if you look back on what has been documented on African photography, then you can see patterns. But looking ahead and looking at the present, I wouldn’t say there’s any such thing as African photography. One of the things about LagosPhoto is that we’re determined to represent photography in its full range. So we’re interested in architectural photography, photo-documentary, art photography, book publications. We’re interested in anything that really resonates and captures the sensibilities of the continent and the people.

Guernica: If you look at the way Africa is represented in the West, it’s usually as a separate showcase of “African photography.” How do you see that?

I don’t think it’s important to categorize work based on the country of birth of the photographer. It creates unnecessary dialogue with the work.

Azu Nwagbogu: I think that’s unfortunate, and I don’t think it’s helpful at all. A lot of photographers who have shown at LagosPhoto 2011 are actually European photographers who have lived here, and the work they’ve done is different from photographers who have spent a week doing a story here. A lot of the people have spent years living in Africa, and so this is what’s important: showing stories and showing work that shows a deeper understanding of the continent. You’ll find that snapshots are overly represented in the mainstream media. I don’t think it’s important to categorize work based on the country of birth of the photographer. It creates unnecessary dialogue with the work.

Guernica: How would you like to see photography in Africa represented? Will LagosPhoto show elsewhere in the world?

Azu Nwagbogu: We’d love to show LagosPhoto, and we’ve been speaking with other partners like Foam [in Amsterdam]. We want to represent African sensibilities to a wider audience. I don’t mean showing the work of local photographers—I mean showing the photographers who we think are representing the continent in a truer fashion, as opposed to showing the work of people who are coming for two weeks on an assignment and heading back to New York and sitting back with a drink after their hardship posting on the continent. We want to show the work of people who actually spend time here, who are emotionally invested, who have captured sensibilities on the continent. It’s very important that the world take notice of these stories. I’m tired of people meeting me when I go abroad and saying, “you sound different, you think different from other Africans.” I don’t think different from other Africans—it’s very common. I’m like a lot of people who are here, it’s just that people aren’t used to engaging or dialoguing with “the other Africa,” if you’d like.

Guernica: How long will LagosPhoto go on for?

Azu Nwagbogu: Well if I’m on my deathbed, I’d like to hear that LagosPhoto will be going on the year after I’m gone. But as I say, it’s not very personal. I want it to be bigger than myself, bigger than the foundation. It’s unfortunate because other photo festivals on the continent seem to represent Africa in a very—should I say the accepted fashion?

Guernica: What’s the accepted fashion?

Azu Nwagbogu: It’s a bit like Hollywood—there are five or six formats for the way we tell stories in Hollywood. To tell African stories there are certain patterns: the corruption, the poverty, the “noble savage,” and all of these stereotypes to those of us who live here. I think it’s important to represent the “other Africa,” as I call it, to tell a more rounded story. Of course these commonly represented stories are not untrue, but it’s important to show fashion photography, for example, to show the style of the people, to show the industry and intellect, the normality of the life we live here. One of the things we hope LagosPhoto will be is a mirror to our politicians: we can create change by holding up a mirror to decision makers, to stakeholders. But I don’t think you can hold it up to them if you overly represent the negative. I think it’s important to show the positives as well, and to show a more rounded view. The problem of Africa really is the Afro-pessimism, where we show the hopelessness of the African situation. It leads to apathy, and no one wants to do anything. You think it’s hopeless, so what’s the point? But if we represent a more rounded view and we’re able to advocate and get invested people to come together, then I think photography will play a key role in creating the vision of the continent we all want to see.

G

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