British-Nigerian artist Karl Ohiri uses photography, performativity and idiosyncratic archival impulses to explore themes that deal with family, identity, cultural heritage and popular culture.
Karl Ohiri is influenced by a fascination with the human condition as this mediates between the self (autobiography) and otherness (society, current affairs and collective histories). These concerns have led to curated projects centred on the artist’s own family archive including Sweet Mother (2016) that deals with the artist coming to terms with his mother’s sudden death in 2012; My Granddad’s Car (2016), a collaborative project with the artist Sayed Hasan exploring migration, heritage and collective histories through the transportation of two old cars belonging to their grandfathers to the UK, and an earlier project Hybrid Lives (2011) a group exhibition featuring Ohiri and fellow artists Andrew Esiebo, Sayed Hasan, Riikka Kassinen and Yasuyo Miyake. This last show sought to broaden the conventional multicultural perspective, mirroring what art historian Hal Foster described in his 2004 essay An Archival Impulse to consider art practices as ‘an idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy and history’.
These interests, as well as interaction with Nigerian culture and an intertwined love for photography, led Ohiri, who based in London but often travels to Nigeria to create Lagos Studio Archives, a timely and important curatorial and conservation project centred on preserving thousands of 35mm colour negatives documenting Lagos’ studio portraiture from the 1970s to the present. The archive also seeks to make historical information that would have been lost or displaced, physically present. On the beginnings of the studio, Ohiri states:
The project was born out of a visit to Owerri (capital of Imo State in East Nigeria) where I was in 2015 to spend time with family. I met a local photographer who was working with portraiture and I asked him out of curiosity what it was like to document Nigeria in the past, as I would love to see such images. He told me that he had thrown out his negatives as they were taking up space and were of no value to him. He explained that his friends had done the same with their negatives when they made the shift from analogue to digital technology as it was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and process film, and the speed of digital catered more for the fast-paced city environment and its clients.
As someone coming from Europe, this struck me as strange. Perhaps this was an isolated case but on a visit to Lagos [later that year], I met another photographer friend and was surprised to hear from him that he also threw out his negatives for the same reason.
Ohiri’s observations led to a period of research to try to locate further scholarship on the histories of studio photography in Nigeria, but there was none beyond the late contemporary art curator Bisi Silva’s 2015 monograph on photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. An important drive for Lagos Studio Archive was the critical need for further scholarship in the overlooked area of African photography due to, as Ohiri aptly notes, ‘the evident visual and historical void on this entire practice in Nigeria.’ He began seeking out and acquiring works by these photographers (most studios he noticed were led by women) to preserve this important part of Nigerian visual culture. His idea was to approach the project as an artist seeking to catalyse a need for conservation, and to raise awareness of the importance of studio photography for personal and collective histories.
Several images, all created in the 1990s, include Blazer Boy with Phone of a young boy dressed in oversized clothing; New York Daydream of a man posing against a fictional New York skyscraper background and Cape depicting a man nude except for his open cloak. All highlight the performativity and flattening out of social and cultural hierarchies based on class and gender, as in the studio, fantasies and aspirations are all acted out. It becomes a performative space to stage the personal and the aspirational, which is most evident in dress, style, pose and gaze. One is able to act out fantasy-based impressions of the self thus blurring the lines between real and unreal, wealth or poverty, religious or non-religious and so on. The way the social and political also affected individuals is interesting to consider in these images as in the 1970s, a recently independent Nigeria is reflected in Western-influenced clothing; while in the 1980s, ideas are borrowed from different elements of film, music, hairstyles – all of which reveal a tension between tradition and contemporaneity.
The demise of studio photography in Nigeria and across the continent is no doubt due to the financial and commercial imperative to produce images quickly, via dutiable means, which is understandable in a city of 17.5 million, where things move fast and demands for services have to keep up with the growing urban population. One could also argue that this lack of cultural preservation is also due to the fact that in Nigeria, the government has long overlooked taking leadership on such matters, leaving this up to individuals and private patronage. One of the contentions Ohiri notes of his ambitious (and at times overwhelming) project is the question of what will happen to these physical items – specifically the negatives – if he were to send them back to Nigeria. To counter this, he intends to develop Lagos Studio Archives into a substantial publication centred on the specificity of dress, identity, gender, class and so on, to further the legacy and reach of this remarkable documentation of Nigerian social history.
An article by Jareh Das
Featured image : Karl Ohiri, “Blazer boy with phone (Circa 1990’s); Courtesy of Lagos Studio Archives
Articles are published in their original language | Les articles sont publiés dans leur langue d’origine