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Finding More than Fashion in the Legacy of Nigerian Photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere

Portraits by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)
Portraits by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)

When photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere passed away this February, he left behind an archive of over 10,000 photographs of his home country Nigeria. Ojeikere is most recognized for the black and white shots of elaborate, gravity-defying Nigerian hairstyles he started photographing in the 1950s, which were presented at last year’s Venice Biennale. Yet as one of the first photojournalists in Nigeria, having lived from 1930 through the country’s independence in 1960, military dictatorships, and village and city life, his perspective was much wider than fashion.

Headgear Series by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (Courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)
Headgear Series by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (Courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)

The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos is currently fundraising on Kickstarter for an extensive monograph on Ojeikere’s work that will include over 200 photographs. As CCA Lagos founder Bisi Silva explains in a video, the independent nonprofit art space has turned to the funding platform to complete the design and printing stage of their five years of research and planning because of “a lack of art publishing and distribution channels across the continent.”

CCA Lagos recently launched a publishing initiative, which joins the CCA Lagos Library that is building an art book resource for the area. Perhaps more than any other contemporary Nigerian photographer, Ojeikere achieved an international profile in his lifetime, with his photography now in collections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Tate Modern. Upon his death, Giulia Paoletti in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote:

His formal vocabulary is immediately recognizable: lack of backdrops or props, elegant female sitters, elaborate coiffures, soft lighting, immaculate black-and-white printing. In Ojeikere’s hands, photography became a means to record the transient creativity that articulated Nigerian social and cultural life.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, ((PORT) 019), 1955. (Courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)
J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, ((PORT) 019), 1955. (Courtesy foto ojeikere and CCA, Lagos)

Alongside a portrait, shared on the Kickstarter page, of a woman in a white dress spiraled out around her, Silva states how “it encapsulates the essence of Ojeikere’s work, which went against colonial visualisation to present the individual as a modern subject in charge of their identity and its representation.” Presuming funding goes well, the plan is to unveil the monograph at the 1:54 African Art Fair in London, running October 16 to 19. And by showcasing everything from architectural documentation of the 1990s to informal captures of daily life, perhaps Ojeikere’s legacy will extend beyond a keen eye for Nigerian style.

The “Monograph on Nigerian Photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere” project is crowdfunding on Kickstarter through September 22. 

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