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Cities, Real or Imagined: LagosPhoto 2013

By Bronwyn Law-Viljoen

LagosPhoto 2013 is the fourth iteration of the Nigeria-based international photography festival, which runs yearly through October and November. This year the theme of the festival—“The Megacity and the Non-City”—moved from last year’s local focus on Lagos to larger philosophical questions about cities in general. In addition to the main exhibition, the festival included a broad program of satellite exhibitions, film screenings, discussions, master classes, and workshops in venues throughout Lagos. It also hosted the World Press Photo exhibition, the itinerant exhibition Témoin/Witness, the contemporary photography competition POPCAP, and the FOTObook project, among other collaborations and initiatives.

Adeola Olagunju, Dreamland, from the series Resurgence: A Manifesto, 2013

Nigerian artist Adeola Olagunju’s series Resurgence: A Manifesto seemed to me to encapsulate the dual elements of the festival’s theme. Her works represent a particular moment in our imagining of our relationship to cities, at least on the African continent: her photographed performances in abandoned industrial buildings present the theatrical as the point of connection between the city—real or imagined—and the bodies that occupy, are oppressed by, or shape city space.

These are certainly not new considerations, but the juxtaposition of images of performances and of cities, in this context, gave the festival theme a new and interesting twist. Though the curatorial statement presented in the festival press release covers a few too many bases, it does draw attention to the extent to which “displacement, fantasy, and an unstable sense of identity” constitute a political, emotive, and aesthetic response to the intellectually and spatially overwhelming idea of the “megacity.” In Lagos, Africa’s fastest-growing and most populous city, with an estimated population of around twenty million, the idea of enacting, insisting on, or even just conceiving of an individual identity is an urgent one, but also one not to be imagined without considering the historical and philosophical matrices at work in this context.

Hence the relevance of Cameroonian Samuel Fosso’s newest “performed” images in the series The Emperor of Africa (2013), in which Fosso plays Mao Tse-tung. The intersections of Chinese and African history go a long way back. In Nigeria in particular, the Chinese presence has grown steadily since the 1950s, often accompanied by controversy over issues such as Chinese migrants’ working conditions and the use of Chinese rather than Nigerian workers on construction projects. My own reference point for this work was an up-close view from a crowded expressway, on a shoot with the Dutch photographer Hans Wilschut, of the Lagos Rail Mass Transit project: the transit system’s Okokomaiko-Iddo-Marina Line, also known as the blue line, is being built by a Chinese construction company.

Samuel Fosso, Untitled, from the series The Emperor of Africa, 2013

Ayana V. Jackson, Dictatorship, from the series Poverty Pornography, 2012

Not unlike Fosso, though with very different effects, Ayana V. Jackson (United States) and Uche Okpa-Iroha (Nigeria) insert themselves into historical and cultural narratives in order to redirect the gaze of the viewer and interrogate the politically loaded presence, or absence, of the black body. In Jackson’s series Poverty Pornography (2011), the photographer plays a lynched slave, then a child soldier, putting her own beautiful, naked body in place of the usually abject subject depicted in such images. In his series The Plantation Boy (2012), Okpa-Iroha plays an imagined black character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, appearing in film stills alongside Brando and De Niro. In the same pavilion as these two series, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts (2012), an invented version of one Zambian man’s lunar longings and his bizarre (but earnest) 1960s space program, makes explicit the aspirations toward, and the possibilities afforded by, fiction in the work of many of the photographers in the festival.

Uche Okpa-Iroha, Untitled, from the series The Plantation Boy, 2012

Curatorial arrangements set these works, as well as Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru’s C-Stunners (2012) and Beninese Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s Musclemen series (2012), against the theatrical backdrop of the city. In Hans Wilschut’s painterly cityscapes of various megacities, Lagos included, the city appears as an amalgamation of the grandiose, the absurd, and the spectacular. On the other hand, in Nigerian Akintunde Akinleye’s Quiet Lagos series from 2013, the usually frenetic and crowded city is dramatically empty of people and traffic, functioning for a moment as ruin or mausoleum.

Cyrus Kabiru, Mask, from the series C-Stunners, 2012

Cristina de Middel, Untitled, from the series The Afronauts, 2012

Supplementary shows lent depth and interest to the main exhibitions of the festival. Témoin/Witness included potent works by Sammy Baloji (Democratic Republic of Congo), Calvin Dondo (Zimbabwe), Sabelo Mlangeni (South Africa), Abraham Oghobase (Nigeria), Monique Pelser (South Africa), and Michael Tsegaye (Ethiopia), all participants in the 2008–10 Photographers’ Portfolio Meetings with Chris Dercon, Simon Njami, and other curators. Works by the winners of Piclet.org’s POPCAP prize—Anhua Collective (Spain), Dillon Marsh (South Africa), Cristina de Middel (Spain), Alexia Webster (South Africa), and Graeme Williams (South Africa)—were imaginatively printed on parachute cloth and displayed outdoors on bamboo scaffolding.

The 2013 World Press Photo exhibition included representations of the human capacity for cruelty that felt, at least for this viewer, uncomfortably at odds with the opulence of the hotel that hosted the exhibition. Nonetheless, LagosPhoto’s program of master classes, discussions, and film screenings—marred only by the failure to start any single event on time—made this a rich and varied festival, one that now has an important place on the international photographic calendar.


Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and editor of the arts publisher Fourthwall Books.