Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday is the second in MoAD’s Curator’s Choice Series. Curated by Olabisi Silva, Director of the Contemporary Centre for Art, Lagos, this first showing of the work of Nigerian national treasure J.D. Ojerikere on the West Coast, is about preserving cultural traditions in the face of Nigeria’s change from colonial rule to independence. Ojerikere’s photographs, which date from 1955 to 2008, document traditional dress and hairstyles along with the Western-style adaptations that enabled the youth of Lagos to feel themselves part of the modern world. Many, Ojerikere included, feared that these sartorial transformations (that is, the Western fashions) would diminish the importance of Nigerian traditions and culture among the youth. Yet, as Ojerikere’s photographs show, traditional styles continued to be ever-present sartorial expressions of what it means to be Nigerian.
Sartorial Moments is the first of several exhibitions at MoAD that will examine the effects of African and Caribbean independence movements on Africans both in Africa and in the global diaspora. The next exhibition in the series, opening in fall 2013, is Cultivating Crosscurrents: African and Black Diasporas in Dialogue, 1960-1975.
On view at MoAD from June 20 to September 29, 2013.
The Museum of the African Diaspora is proud to present Olabisi Silva’s exhibition J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday. Sartorial Moments begins on October 1, 1960, the official date of Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule. The landmark event triggered a new level of consciousness, a new national identity. In this context, photography was an attractive medium: its historical connection to the production of and fixation on identity, globalization, and culture proved a particularly essential tool in postcolonial Nigeria. It was also notable, both within Nigeria and across the continent, for its ability to archive moments in history and reclaim the imagery of Africa from the colonial observer.
In the sixties, photography’s main focus was commercially oriented. Ojeikere, however, had other ideas. In 1968, a year after joining the Nigerian Arts Council, he shifted the focus of his photography to recording the cultural life of Nigeria. At the time, there were very few resources documenting fashion and most fashion imagery was taken from a colonial perspective that exoticized and attempted to theorize about culture and dress. Ojeikere, however, chose to document his subject matter from his own perspective, providing a resource for referencing styles he termed “ephemeral.” Through a body of photographic work spanning sixty years, he captured a glimpse into the postcolonial Nigerian identity through its fashion and style.
Fashion photography offers a retrospective on dress that refers to the socio-cultural environment and can be cross-referenced for future trends. Like his Malian contemporaries Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé, Ojeikere had a way with portraiture and was able to capture subtle changes in style and dress. The negotiation between the dual influences of the West and traditional styling became apparent through his immense body of work. Having noticed a shift in hair trends during the fifties and early sixties, with women increasingly wearing wigs, Ojeikere believed that traditional hairstyling might disappear altogether. However, these hair styles did in time return. Believing photography to be the best way to capture the trend he began work on his most famous series, Hairstyles, which contains approximately a thousand images. His taxonomical approach meant that not only did he capture images of each style, but also learned its history and cultural significance.
Ojeikere has been more successful than any other photographer in documenting the innumerable shifts in cultural trends within Nigeria. His work with individual and group subjects makes for a cultural commentary on people’s behavior, cultural identity, and social dynamics, providing an insight into the many changes in style that have occurred since independence. On display is a selection of images relating to trends in hair, gele (head-wrap) tying, and clothing styles. Large, studio pictures, each depicting a woman in contemporary Western-influenced dress, resembling the images coming out of North America during the “blaxploitation” era, fill the gallery space. Another section highlights the changes also taking place in men’s dress. . Other images in the exhibition from important sartorial events such as weddings, capture Aso Oke (traditional handwoven cloth), with husbands and wives in majestic, often-matching garments that trigger memories like pictures in an album. Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday aims to recollect these times past—moments the photographer did not want forgotten.
— Oyinda Fakeye
MoAD Visual Arts Program Statement
There is a direct connection between Sartorial Moments and the exhibition Cultivating Crosscurrents: African and Black Diasporas in Dialogue, 1960-1984 opening at MoAD on September 27, 2013. Cultivating Crosscurrents considers evolving ideologies of self-definition and self-determination, when people are able to define their culture on their own terms. As will Cultivating Crosscurrents, Sartorial Moments pictures people who are defining their place in history. In Ojeikere’s desire to document aspects of Nigerian history, he also highlights the complexities of a new and free post-colonial Nigerian society.
In documenting those shifts in urban Nigeria, Ojeikere was aware that his photographs captured fleeting moments. He stated, “Photographs are witnesses of the past, of events… Everything comes and goes, disappearing without being recoverable.” But those unrecoverable moments are there in his photographs. They remind us of a time of innocence, when African and Caribbean independence was fresh. The photographs also reveal the degree of influence that the West, mainly the United Kingdom and the United States, had on the youth of Lagos, as they negotiated between the old and new, colonialism and post-colonialism. For them , this was played out in fashion. Hair, being one of the main identifiers of time and place, became a focus for Ojeikere as he documented the body politic of his young nation.
Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, Ph.D
Curator, Visual Arts Program
Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco