Rush Hour

Ayodeji Rotinwa on the 9th Lagos Photo Festival

Curators Wunika Mukan, Bella Disu Adenuga, and Velentine Umansky with director Azu Nwagbogu, curator and creative director Charlotte Langhorst and curator Eva de Cavael at the private preview at The Adenuga building in Ikoyi.

FOR THE NINTH EDITION of the annual LagosPhoto Festival, “Time Has Gone,” twenty-three artists hailing from Myanmar to Madagascar displayed their works across ten venues in Nigeria’s commercial capital. The four curators—Eva Barois De Caevel, Charlotte Langhorst, Wunika Mukan, and Valentine Umansky—invited participants to take up the idea of nostalgia, reinterpret the past, investigate archival practices, and, essentially, try to slow down time: an impossible twist on the festival’s themes. To my mind, the show primarily offered one thing: uncertainty.

It all started out promisingly enough. On a balmy Saturday evening, the festival opened at the old Federal Government Press Liaison Office, a relic of Nigeria’s not-so-distant colonial past, when the British ruled and ran administrative offices in Lagos Island. Earlier that week, Charles, Prince of Wales, visited Lagos. In a photo op with several (independent) kings from different lands across Nigeria, the prince was positioned—presumably by his British handlers—to sit several meters ahead of the other royalty in a clear visual hierarchy of supposed importance. Maybe time has not gone, after all.

Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures, 2015–.

The festival’s location was at once apt and unusual. Though close to a park where cultural activities are held, it isn’t found on any must-see list of choice exhibition venues here. Standing at the entrance were two burly bodyguards, whose shirts looked several sizes too small, while inside, the work of Madagascan artist Malala Andrialavidrazana immediately commanded attention. From afar, Figures, 2015–, looks like maps from the colonial-era, a time when the African continent was a target to be mined, conquered, and shared. On closer inspection, the series offers images of people dressed in traditional finery—colorful, flamboyant—layered with symbols of Western civilization: Grecian sculptures, columns, and, curiously, a biplane, a common feature of World War II.

Further into the press office, which was packed with more visitors than locals, was Mathilde ter Heijne’s ongoing interactive installation, Woman to Go, 2003–. Postcards of unnamed women from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries are installed on a wall; on the backs of the postcards are short biographies of influential women—suffragettes, artists, pirates, writers—thus creating a mismatch between image and text. The point of using the photographs of unknown women to service interest in already known ones eluded me. I wanted to know more about the unknown women, what kind of lives they led. What was it like for a black woman in 1839, in ter Heijne’s Holland, for example? Where was she photographed wearing her ethnic attire, why, and by who? It was an exercise in guesswork and hope.

Mathilde ter Heijne, Woman to Go, 2003–. Installation view.

Later that weekend, two satellite exhibitions opened at Omenka Gallery and the Mike Adenuga Alliance Française Center. Omenka Gallery is the former home of Nigeria’s most prominent artist, Ben Enwonwu, and is located on a quiet street in the most expensive district in Lagos, Ikoyi. The gallery’s neighbor is one of Nigeria’s richest citizens, a Forbes-listed billionaire, Folorunsho Alakija, whose wealth is often compared to Oprah Winfrey’s. Inside, Ghanaian artist CrazinisT and Senegalese Italian artist Adji Dieye held court, showing works that seemed like they could or should have been presented separately. It felt immediately clear that this show was not intended to be heavily attended. As if to flaunt the level of their enthusiasm, or lack thereof, the visitors I saw did not spend more than ten minutes in the admittedly small gallery space, soon retreating to the gallery’s lush, green garden to sip juice and talk about everything but the work.

The Mike Adenuga Alliance Française Center, also in Ikoyi and recently commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, is newly minted. It is still undergoing construction with a number of incomplete wings visible. Though at a busy intersection, on the day I visited, there was barely anyone there. The festival had installed works across the venue’s many rooms and hallways. On the first floor was a photo series by Charlotte Yonga, a French Cameroonian artist, who had photographed women in Douala.

Charlotte Yonga, “Bito ba Mundi,” 2018. Installation view.

There was also another photo series, this one better fitting—Amanda Iheme’s “Way of Life” where she had trained her lens on Glover Memorial Hall, a colonial relic, going to waste with disuse. In one of the most striking photographs in the collection, Iheme uses light, or the lack thereof, to highlight disrepair. Boarded windows looking over what appears to be a staircase are shone up with light from an invisible ground floor. The source of light is itself unseen. With Iheme’s lighting, the brick-stone walls also look like they are molding and peeling off. The composition of light is exact, making it impossible to miss what is obviously missing from the building: care, attention. I left the show feeling comme ci, comme ca.

I was starting to wonder who exactly this festival was for. Its audience across venues and events was both broad and specific: European. White. For an event approaching a decade of practice, I had expected that it wouldn’t have problems attracting a more diverse audience, at least more than a trace of the communities in Lagos that the festival seeks to serve. But time, indeed, had gone.