An American Curator Reflects on the Rich History of Photography in Lagos, Nigeria
“Photographers, and artists in general, know that Lagos is a truly complex place,” says Kimberli Gant, a curator and art historian who has spent the past two summers on the African continent—far from her Chicago roots—studying photographic depictions of Lagos, Nigeria, post 1960. On the occasion of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, where several of the Nigerian artists she worked with will have artwork on view, we spoke with Gant about her draw to Lagos, the country’s rich photographic history (including photography’s journey to acceptance as an art medium), her thoughts on the current local and international market for Nigerian photographers, and her (admittedly biased) list of African artists to look out for at the fair.
Artsy: You spent the last two summers living in Lagos, Nigeria, and researching contemporary African art for your dissertation. Why Lagos?
Kimberli Gant: I initially began thinking about Lagos as a place for art historical study because it was a city that I knew about tangentially for years. I knew scholars, writers, and artists from there and I knew it was a site that Western scholars and mainstream media outlets talked about. So it was one of those places that was the in the back of my mind. However, I focused on Lagos because I was interested in researching landscapes and urban spaces within the African continent and felt that particular city made sense. It also helped that no one had done an art history dissertation on the topic before, which I found surprising. The scholarship I have found on Lagos is predominantly in the fields of history, sociology, and urban planning. My dissertation is featuring a couple of Nigerian artists who use Lagos as a focus in their work and to analyze their particular presentations of this complex city.
Artsy: Your studies are focused on film and photographic depictions of Lagos since 1960. What drew you to this subject matter?
KG: I have been writing on photography since my undergraduate thesis on Renee Cox in 2002. I shifted from looking at images of the human body to bodies of space for my master’s research on Ingrid Pollard and Zarina Bhimji. I am fascinated with the vocabulary of space and how certain terms become a part of a person’s, and community’s, self-identification.
I am a born and bred Chicagoan. I have lived in numerous other places, but when people ask me where I’m from, that is what I say. There is both a physical and imaginative place that associated with the name Chicago. People may have different viewpoints on what a Chicagoan is, what they are like, their attitudes, etc. but at the end of the day people are usually connected emotionally to where they live or are born. My dissertation is trying to look at those types of personal and sociocultural connections between a person and a place from an artistic perspective. In addition, I am presenting these ideas from Nigerian artists J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Akinbode Akinbiyi, and Otobong Nkanga, who have lived and worked in Lagos for decades. These artists, who are featured in 1:54, give nuanced perspectives that many viewers may not initially grasp because they don’t have the local knowledge to read the work fully. Though there is a lot within the work that viewers can engage with.
Artsy: What has been most enlightening, thus far, in regards to the history of photography in Nigeria?
KG: This history of photography is always growing and new research is being published all the time. Currently I am interested in photography’s journey of acceptance as an art medium. An amazing photographer, filmmaker, and writer Mr. Tam Fiofori has been documenting some of the most important political events in Nigeria since the 1960s, and wrote an important essay on the lack of photography in the National Gallery of Art in Lagos. Fiofori, and other photographers of his generation, including Sunmi Smart-Cole, Ojeikere, Jide Adeniji-Jones, and a host of younger photographers have exhibitions abroad, but are not well collected locally. This is part of a larger issue of the primary and secondary markets in Lagos. Collectors and curators with backgrounds in international art markets are buying and exhibiting photography all the time. CCA Lagos, the Goethe-Institut, and African Arts Foundation are just a few examples of spaces in Lagos that feature photography. Plus there are the commercial photographers getting support through magazines, and the biennials in Dakar and Bamako. However, this is only one sector.
There is also a secondary market of elite and upper middle class Nigerian collectors, and they are not necessarily buying photography. I went to an auction in Lagos in 2013 at Terra Kulture and the only example of photography in the entire group was two photographs by Ojeikere. He has international acclaim and appeal so I wasn’t surprised to see his work for sale, but I was surprised that he was only the photographer participating. There are numerous photographers working in Nigeria, but their work is not selling. In the few homes I visited I saw collections of oil and acrylic paintings; portraits, market scenes, landscapes, etc. Thus many local artists use photography as a tool for oil paintings because they are catering to that market.
Artsy: Can you describe your day-to-day experiences working in Lagos, and your relationship with the local photographers who are documenting Lagos today?
KG: Lagos is an amazing place. It is inspiring because things can happen really quickly and there is a perception of always being on the hustle so I always felt I could never be idle. While conducting research I had finite amounts of time to get around the city. I traveled to galleries, libraries, archives, and conducted interviews between the hours of 10am to 3pm because traffic is really bad before and after those times of day. So when you get things accomplished in only a few hours after having to get across town on the bus and taking a motorbike, you feel amazing. On the other hand, you are always exhausted at the end of the day. All the energy you expended can be really frustrating.
I would often have to pay more for access because I am not local. While I can respect that, I wasn’t always told that information prior to visiting, so I would then have to come back the next day because I didn’t have the right amount of money and only one bank in town took my bank card. So then you have a wasted a day. Those small things can take a toll, but you do what you have to do and appreciate the opportunities you have.
I was also grateful that everyone I met was extremely nice and welcoming to me, especially when they realized I wasn’t coming with a preconceived agenda. I wasn’t telling them what I thought I was asking the artists and scholars for their knowledge to add to my own.
Photographers, and artists in general, know that Lagos is a truly complex place. It is not just a dichotomy of extremes, there are intricacies I am still learning. I honestly don’t want to characterize the city because I haven’t been there long enough to do it justice.
Artsy: Are there any African artists that you have discovered through your research, and more previously during your time at MoCADA, that we should expect to see at the 1:54 Fair?
KG: There are amazing artists that will be included in 1:54 fair. Some of these artists I know personally, while others are artists I know of and would love to work and research on in the future. I would also point out this list is completely biased and therefore not conclusive. Plus there are many others I would love to see included that are not participating.
Portrait of Kimberli looking through J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s archive by Mr. Tam Fiofori.