Nigerian Photographer Abraham Oghobase
Nigerian photographer Abraham Oghobase’s conceptual and experimental photography is a response to many things he says, but with one overarching theme, “purpose” and identity against the social and political developments happening within Nigeria’s capital Lagos. His images looking at commercial text adverts written on walls around Lagos sum up the artists focus – the rapid changes in Nigeria.
As he spoke to us, the thunderous urgency of daytime Lagos traffic could be heard whirring into motion in the background.
“The traffic is alarming [in Ajah] and it didn’t used to be like that,” says Oghobase. For him documenting this evolution in the city’s landscape was important.
“Lagos is really dynamic and it’s evolving so fast that they are trying to build infrastructure but sometimes that infrastructure cannot sustain the tension and the people living in the city and that in itself creates alternative modes of transport and alternative modes of commerce and that’s what I found fascinating about this stretch of wall that they wrote these texts on” he explains further.
New works from the 36-year-old experiment with digital and layering images on top of each other. This includes images for a future project into Nigeria’s colonial history. The artist has been modifying his own image onto those of imperialists working during British occupation in Nigeria.
I stumbled upon this book in South Africa called The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, written by Lord Lugard. [He] was one of the British general of Nigeria and his wife gave Nigeria its name according to popular belief. These are the things that inspire the work I’ve been doing. I’ve also been inspired by a place I visited five years ago called Jos [Plateau State, Middle Belt of Nigeria]. I saw a lot of huge craters and lakes and I started wondering and I asked my fiancé’s dad at the time what that was about, and he told me this was as a result of tin mining perpetrated by the British at the time. So I’m interested in that history, colonial exploitation on the land and looking at the effects. For me there’s a need for a larger narrative. I’m not interested in going to Jos and just photographing these mining points – there has to be a larger narrative. I started looking at the key players and portraits of these people so from Prince Philip to Princess Alexandra and Queen Elizabeth II. I started using their portraits and reconstructing them using my face. It’s called the Anatomy of a Place and that’s what I’m working on now.
Talk us through your images of the fuel subsidy protests in Nigeria and why you took them?
There seemed to be a sense of consciousness in terms of what was happening politically at that time. There were a lot of crowds and people came out wanting to fight for what they believed in. They wanted to fight for justice even though there might not be a possibility of getting a result. There was a belief that for once let’s just show that we are very much conscious of what is happening now and people have to be careful and the idea of corruption in the country as well. People were frustrated at that time. It was a five-day protest and on the fourth day there was something about the crowd that I found interesting. Also the space is very symbolic, it was named after a famous lawyer called Gani Fawehinmi. He was a human rights activist, there’s a park named after him where that protest was taking place and it’s called Ojota. For me, what was interesting was how the presence of people changes the dynamics of things and spaces.
You took a series of images on guerrilla marketing in Lagos. How do you feel about the city’s changing landscape?
Lagos is a city of about 20 million people and counting. I’d just moved to a place called Ajah [close to Lekki, an affluent area in Lagos]. I look at Ajah now and I think wow this is insane, the traffic is alarming and it didn’t used to be like that. The amounts that people pay for properties in Lekki is not even realistic because you are dealing with bad roads and lack of infrastructure. So the changing landscape in Lagos is really dynamic and it’s evolving so fast that they are trying to build infrastructure but sometimes that infrastructure cannot sustain the tension and the people living in the city and that in itself creates alternative modes of transport and alternative modes of commerce and that’s what I found fascinating about this stretch of wall that they wrote these texts on. That wall was actually a marketplace but they evacuated people and as soon as people saw this bare wall it became another form of commerce again so they started writing.
You make a bold statement in Ecstatic, what were you trying to achieve with it?
I’d just come back from Berlin at the time, and Lagos for me has been photographed in a certain type of way. Oshodi has been photographed often and that’s the representation of Lagos. And we all know it has to do with congestion but there are ways that one can photograph Lagos, there are ways you can tell those stories without the literal way that people want to see Lagos. So it could be my response to congestion, it could be a response to lack of infrastructure, unemployment or just trying to find myself as a young person.
Can you expand on the literal way you think Lagos is usually photographed? What do you mean by this?
For example, foreigners, they come to Lagos and what they want to photograph is Makoko [Nigeria’s large floating slum soon to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments in the area]. Or back in the day when Oshodi [home to one of the largest markets in the Lagos] was very busy, they like to go and photograph Oshodi. I’m not saying they are not important but there are different ways that people can show those things, but it’s not my place to say how people should show their work. It’s not something that interests me really because these places have been photographed and shown so many times, that it’s become a pollution to me so things like that I stay away from. I just think it’s important for me to develop a language so if I want to talk about congestion for example I don’t have to use the representation of Oshodi.
How do you plan your projects?
When I first started I just worked strictly with tripod and I used a self-timer. In Ecstatic, the distance was quite challenging for me so I composed the image and I got a little boy to click. I told the boy when I jump just click and when he clicked the boy was screaming and shouting how he really liked it [clicking the photo]. I thought just don’t finish the film. So it becomes a life performance because it’s not digital for me to edit the images. For Untitled, I got a friend [the sound artist Emeka Ogboh] to actually click the camera for me. I would first compose my image on a tripod and then all the person needs to do is just click. They can’t move the camera – just pull the trigger.
Finally, what advice would you give those wanting to capture their culture through photography?
For me I think it’s important to read, photography is a medium, it’s a tool. I think if you read your mind opens and you can start thinking about a visual language. You can find your way of telling your story. People should have a voice. There’s a book called This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore. It’s a biography on Fela [Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician who pioneered Afrobeat]. He wrote the book in such a beautiful way that you could just hear Fela talking because he didn’t write it in a pure, very clean English way.
He was able to articulate how Fela expresses himself which I find beautiful. So for me it’s about finding your way of telling your story but that can only happen when you read and expose yourself to different information. But the problem is people don’t read they just want to make photographs. The problem then becomes what are you making photographs of?
Some people don’t understand the history of Lagos, for example, so why are you making photographs of Lagos? It’s not enough to just make beautiful images. Anybody can make fantastic images in this day where people have 12 megapixel phones and digital cameras.
They make really great photos that they post on Instagram and it’s just a hobby. When you are living in that kind of world, how do you compete?
What makes you a good photographer is the content and how much you understand of what you are doing and the depths you are willing to go. There has to be a process, there has to be a methodology, there has to be research, and if you have those, I think for me one should be fine.
This is part of a longer feature for African Digital Art. Excerpts from the interview have not been written up chronologically. You can read the full interview on the African Digital Art Network – click here. Images copyright of Abraham Oghobase www.abrahamoghobase.com.