Nigeria has a special place on the African continent – it’s not only the most populous country on the continent, but is also a success story despite years of internal strife between the Christian south and the Muslim north. The largest city in Africa, Lagos, is a socioeconomic melting pot of 20 million people; a kaleidoscope of sorts documenting both the positive and negative aspects of daily life through an African lens.
A yearly photography exposition in the city, LagosPhoto, is an international arts exhibition that offers a look into African society. Hatje Kantz has gathered work featured at LagosPhoto, which has been held annually since 2010. The intent of LagosPhoto is to challenge Afro-pessimism, or the idea that Africa is a continent of despair and death. The book includes not only Nigerian photographers, but other photographers from across the continent as well.
“It is easy to expect the book to be representative of Lagos, but it’s really a chronological sequence of the work we have done with the festival over the years, and not a book about Lagos,” said Azu Nwagbogu, the founder and director of LagosPhoto. While the festival is about contemporary African photography, there are also expansive African-themed works from foreigners as well. “Diamond Matters” by Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen documents the diamond trade in Africa from the point of excavation to its sale in overseas markets.
As African markets surge in Internet penetration, it gives power and agency to Africans as the lens shifts from an outsider’s point of view to the view of those currently living on the continent. For example, South African photographer Mary Sibande’s project, “Long Live the Dead Queen,” is a series of self-portraits portraying her as a domestic worker, while Nigerian photographer Jenevieve Aken’s “Masked Woman” shows her performing the role of a femme fatale as commentary on a woman’s role in Nigerian society.
Africans living under oppressive regimes such as Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe have also been represented at LagosPhoto. Kudzanai Chiurai’s “State of the Nation” addresses the role of conflict and how it can lead to the birth of something else, such as a female head of state (Africa currently has several female heads of state, the most famous being Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf). Other works, such as “Flamboya” by Dutch artist Viviane Sassen, recall Africa’s colonial past and also serves as documentation offering a fresh point of view on modern day Africa.
However, Nwagbogu has admitted that while the photography from across Africa is exceptional, the city that hosts the festival has room to improve. “This is an honest representation of the festival’s output to date,” he said. “The main objective of the festival was to address this gap by helping African photographers to mature through collaboration with outside artists.” With a little bit of outside help, the contemporary African photography scene is maturing and will carve an important path for Africa-based photographers to follow.