See Me, See You... Africa From Fresh Lenses

See Me, See You... Africa From Fresh Lenses

IT was a day to remember recently at the Nike Art Gallery, Lekki Lagos; as it hosted AFRICA: See You, See Me, an exhibition of over 200 pictures, featuring an array of renowned photographers from the older generation to those of the contemporary period.
The touring exhibition — a section of which featured on the sidelines of the recently concluded Lagos Black Heritage Festival under the theme NAIJA ITALIA — provided a platform for African photographers and the peers from other parts of the world to put in perspective the images of an emerging continent.
The pictures optimistically captured the rich and diverse social, political and cultural  lives of Africans, with many at the event enthusing that black peoples were no longer objects of misrepresentative imaging as was the case during the colonial period.
Africans, it was the consensus, have now turned the curve, and have forced the world of photography to take them as subjects worthy of quality discourse and attention.
This object to subject transition is well reflected in the collections of photos  exhibited in the on-going show (ending April 21) from the continent’s colonial past, and from realities of the present. On display are the works of such legends as JD Ojeikere, Seidu Keita and Malik Sidibe
Towards the end of the brief opening ceremony,  the young female assistant curator from Haiti, Madala Hilaire, who had worked tirelessly to make the show successful could not stop the lone tear rolling down her cheek. She was overwhelmed. Her raspy voice was filled with emotions as she made her speech, thanking those who had come for their support.
Not far away, JD Ojeikere, the grand old man who donned a black bowler hat made a speech. Described as one of the legends of photography in Africa, he accepted the accolade with appreciation and thanks. He was elated for the honour of being so recognised and expressed his wish that many more of such shows would be done to promote the art of photography in the country.
The touring exhibition, curated by the US-based Nigerian professor of African Studies, and expert in Post-Colonial researches, Professor Awam Amkpa with assistant by the Haitian culture researcher, Madala Hilarie, both of New York University (NYU), is sponsored by AFRICA.CONT of Lisbon, Portugal.  It is hosted in Nigeria by the Culture Advocates Caucus, CAC, with support of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, CCA, Yaba Lagos, which last Friday hosted a symposium on Visual Activism as part of the touring show; and Goethe Institut, Lagos.
It had been mounted in Portugal, Italy and China before coming to Nigeria on its first of tour of the continent. After Lagos, which ends at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos (April 23-May 2), it will move on to Dakar Senegal, where it will feature as part of the Dak’Art Biennale.
On the walls of the gallery, pictures hung feeding the eyes of those who turned out for the show with cheery and hopeful shots about the current and coming greatness of Africa. Some of the photographers as well as other art enthusiasts shared their thoughts about the exhibition and photography with ARMSFREE AJANAKU ONOMO.
JD Ojeikere, African photography legend
PHOTOGRAPHY is a very strong medium of expression such that when you see a photograph, you don’t need to be told what is there. When you see it, it is real, unlike graphic arts, where the artiste has to explain to you the details of what he has done.
Photography is self explanatory; a picture is a picture, if it is a girl there or a boy in it, you will see it. It is the most real medium of expression. Photography has not been well recognised by the government; even the art world has not recognised photography to an extent. But we are just growing to the point of recognition, and I thank God that things are changing for the better.
My pictures in this exhibition depict our old cultural heritage. As you can see, our girls are no more plaiting their hair. These pictures take us back to where we were before, and put us in the map of the older generation, such that the younger generation can see what the younger generation has done. The pictures are documentaries to show our past.
Marco Ambrosi, Italian photographer
THE See Me See You concept is an interesting challenge because normally, we usually think that taking pictures is a one way act of registering or expressing someone’s sensitivity. But the sights are almost not less than two, and it is interesting to consider that the vision is influenced by many factors, one of which is the culture of the photographer, and the other is the culture of the viewer. I cannot say much about the colonial period; I know something about that period, but I am not a scholar for that topic. But what I can say is that I have never found anybody so happy to be photographed like Africans, and Nigerians in particular because they have no fear, and always move to being protagonists of the performance.
So they perform in front of the camera; it is very rare that you find somebody  who doesn’t want to be photographed here. One of the things that I noticed when I came here, is that the African, Nigerian world is full of signs that have a meaning and something to say. Here, reality is much richer, than we are used in Europe where we are used to images that are done by somebody else… we live in a continuous flow of images, which are passive compared to the ones here. These signs here are things that I notice with pleasure because they reveal a good talent for representation, and also the pleasure to represent.
        (Picture Gallery)
We Want Our Continent To Be Seen     Beyond The ‘Bad News’ — Curators
Awam Amkpa, curator
THE objective of the See me See you exhibition is to really ask, how do we want to be seen as Africans; and that is not just because we have something original; we don’t just like what other people are showing of us. So it is combination of our own original view of ourselves, and also, contradicting the way others show us.
It also talks about the history of photography; with this works, Africans are contributing to the contemporary way of doing photography. That’s why I made a bold statement, which somebody was not happy about: that photography is as old as Africa. African photographers started a long time ago, but their photography was not known. The one that was known was the colonial photography, which saw Africans as barbarians, and it is that image Africans had to fight, and they fought so well, and brought different people into their fight, such that even people who are not Africans joined them in the fight.

I think it (emancipation of African photography) started when Africans began to clamour for their own image because if you look at Pa Ojeikere, Seidu Keita and Malik Sidibe, theirs was the early period when Africans really wanted to be the subject of photography, not just to be objects. As such, it was their desires that were captured in the photographs, and so you notice that some of these pictures are deliberately trying to say ‘see me as I am posing.’
And that is the essence of this See Me, See You exhibition. All of them are very playful photographs; they are not just looking at reality as it is, but are looking at the power Africans have over reality. I don’t think Africans are guests in this century; there are two Africas: there is Africa of the nation states, governments and so on — if you look at that Africa, they are late, they are not in the 21st century. But there is the other Africa, where we have our informal economies, people crossing borders, and life just goes on a faster pace than the life of the government.
So if you look at every African country, you will see two different Africas — the Africa of informal citizens, who are constantly reinventing themselves, and trying everyday against all odds. You see that Africa, and you also see the Africa of the governments. For us, the former is the Africa that is dynamic, that does not stop. And that is what we want to tell people that that is the Africa they should pay attention to because this dynamic Africa is ahead of the curve. They are not late comers; they are actually at the frontier, and they are telling you, ‘see us as we are changing the world, and our own world first.’
For me, that is the Africa that is important.
Think about it, if you look at Africa from the government down, we are bad news. Name one government that you can say is the best example of governance for the people who live in that country — that’s just one out of about 54 countries now. But look from below, and you will see people against all odds; starvation, government deprivation, oppression, no roads, no hospitals, no electricity, but the people still makes a living. They wake up in the morning, go to work, and they just say, ‘I am not going to take this,’ and that Africa is the real Africa.
I think African photographers have been doing well to capture all of these. There are a lot of incredible African photographers; if I had a magic wand, I would want all of them to be in this show; even in Nigeria, there are so many of them. It is not just the photographers; it is the people who would appreciate it, by putting the photos in their homes, not just in photo albums. It is a moment where we should capitalise on something we have, and that is visual literacy. We are very visually literate, that is why Nollywood succeeds; it is because the population knows how to watch images; and so how can we make that our element of strength? That is what we are trying to say with photography.
Madala Hilarie,  Associate Curator
EVERY exhibition comes with its own challenges; here, the challenge was to make it a true representation of the continent and its ever-fleeting growth and development, and it was that challenge that I really wanted to meet. It is the same works, but it is a different narrative when you bring it to another site. That is why it is important to do this as a global project, and we have had amazing, and different responses, with many unique types of dialogue about how Africa and black people are represented.
Having brought it to Europe, and China, the dialogue and the questions that have been raised about the photographs that people had never seen, the conversations have been truly profound. The challenges logistically always happen, and it has been a learning experience. It will be a better show in Senegal next month, and it will be bigger because I would have learnt from this one, and I would have gotten critics‘ appreciation and questions that would help me on how to make it better. But also, it is to show that we are a people that are changing, and again, when we show pieces from the past, and contemporary works, it is contemporary, but it is a future of the African art, and our people.
Africans have not seen enough of themselves; they have probably looked at themselves through a certain lens, and we need to change that gaze, and do that in any form that is possible. So one of the great objectives of the show, having the number of artistes that we do, is to show us through a different lens. There is so much to be seen, and each picture tells a different story, and has a different representation because it is been shown through a different lens. So we show it through African, and non African lenses. And we will show it at the beginning, the very beginning, when we raise questions about how we represent ourselves. You could see the colonial photographs; I remember when we brought this show to China, they were perplexed as to why we would show them, asking whether we don’t think they were negative representation of ourselves. It was a great and profound question; we must raise these questions, and in the end, we cannot change the fact that these were in fact representations, and we juxtaposed that we the contemporary works, and answer those questions. We must show the old, to show the new light, so as to show that there is a new way of showing Africa, and that we are not sick of showing ourselves. If anything, I hope the show proves that there is more to be seen.
Bisi Silva, Artistic Director, Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos (collaborator on project )
I THINK (the exhibition, See me, See you) is really important in the sense that (before now) a lot of the images of Africans were actually being taken by non Africans, and they don’t give the sort of wide overview of the diversity and the complexity of Africans. So I think it is important when Africans actually begin to take pictures of themselves, and show who they are, the way they are, without embellishing anything, just presenting it to show the good, the bad and the ugly, and the different facets of our daily lives. This exhibition has some extremely interesting artistes from the older generation, like Malik Sidibe, Seidu Keita and JD Ojeikere to the younger generation of artistes who are practising, not just within the traditional photographic context, but also within the contextual art context.
It is about seeing ourselves the way we are. I always say that you need to show the ugly because if you don’t then you are lying, but it is the way in which you show the daily grind that really counts…This exhibition shows that we do need to show the diversity of who we are. Just as we have images of the molue, and the daily grind, we also have these beautiful images of a wedding, and you can see the beauty and the glory of our culture. And that is extremely important; you can see the children playing football from these pictures. That is a universal game that is played everywhere and anywhere. There is also this image that shows us with our mobile phones, which have become a very important part of who we are, especially in Africa, where there are no landlines. The mobile communication is what allows us to do our business, move from one place to the other, and keep in touch, not just with our close friends and family, but also people in other parts of the world. We are part of the digital revolution of the 21st century.


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