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Exhibition of early and contemporary Nigerian photography opens at Bonhams
George Osodi, Sangana Waterfront 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Bonhams.

LONDON.- An astonishing collection of photography documenting Nigeria’s rich and diverse cultural heritage in the tradition of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, the Father of Nigerian photography, and his modern counterparts will be on view at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London from 17-31 July.

The exhibition is being supported by the Kola Aluko Foundation, which comments: “This unique collection of photographs charts the developments in photography as an artistic practice in Nigeria. Ojeikere, who died earlier this year and to whom this exhibition is dedicated, is an inspiration to all Nigerians and Africans. As the father of Nigerian photography he tells Nigeria’s proud story, showcasing our rich cultural heritage to the world. He is a Nigerian leader who continues to this day to motivate and influence others.”

Giles Peppiatt, Director of African Art at Bonhams, says: “As our sales of Contemporary African Art have gained recognition and set new world records for the artists of this huge and vital continent, we have increasingly come to appreciate the work of this groundbreaking artist. The exhibition of his work, and that of those who inherit his mantle, is a fitting tribute to the best tradition of artistic dedication that captures and celebrates the spirit of Nigeria – Africa’s leading economy - in its Centenary Year.”

African photography has flourished as an art form, particularly in Nigeria where it has been at the forefront of creativity, with local artists providing innovative and striking forms of expression. The exhibition provides images of tradition alongside those of dynamic change. Nigeria emerged as a nation state from a diversity of kingdoms, emirates, chieftaincies and other communities as a result of British colonisation. The exhibition invites the viewer to consider the past and the present through changing landscapes, individuals, events and technology.

The earliest photographs in the exhibition document some of the most important African members of Lagos society, upon whom the British depended. These images include portraits of Mohammed Shitta Bey, the foremost palm oil trader of the Delta and head of the Muslim community; Prince Oyekan of the Oba of Lagos; and Otunba Payne, first Lagos High Court registrar and a member of the ljebu Ode royal family.

By the end of the 19th century, Lagos had established itself as the pre-eminent cosmopolitan metropolis of West Africa. Its style is expressed in Obafemi Luther’s portrait of a fashionable entourage of young Lagos men promenading across Five Cowrie Creek Bridge between Victoria Island and Ikoyi. However, contemporary images of firemen also offer comment on colonialism. Lagos was plagued by fires in the late 19th century, but the single fire engine was only available for use for colonial emergencies; otherwise it was locked up and not available to the community at large. In 1880, a campaign to train a crew of Lagosian firemen to operate the engine for the benefit of the entire city was run by the Lagos newspapers and the exploits of this crew became a focus of local pride and photography.

Independence in 1960, a key moment in Nigeria’s history, is captured by photographers Fosa and Olojo, who evoke a sense of liberation. Themes explored in the exhibition include urban living, life and water, music and singers, buildings, vessels and vehicles and people and power. Together they encapsulate a powerful and intense view of an emerging country and its people.

The Nigerian Centenary Photography Exhibition is curated by Ayo Adeyinka, founder and principal consultant at TAFETA and co-curated by Charles Gore, Senior Lecturer in the History of African Art at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS).

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