Posts Tagged ‘Pieter Hugo’

Once again, the international art world has come knocking on Nollywood’s door. The photography exhibition, Sharon Stone in Abuja (which references the popular Nollywood film of the same name), will open tomorrow at Location One in New York City. The show, which features works by Wangechi Mutu, Pieter Hugo, Mickalene Thomas, Andrew Esiebo, and Zina Saro-Wiwa, promises to “reimagine the visual conventions of Nollywood film-making and explore the emotional landscape of Nigeria and Africa”. Filmmaker and AfricaLab founder Zina Saro-Wiwa and James Lindon of Pace Gallery are the co-curators.

I was not impressed by Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood show at Yossi Milo in New York City earlier this year, which I felt decontexualized the industry to the point of portraying it as the freakish “other”. Thus, I am skeptical if Sharon Stone in Abuja will actually contribute worthwhile dialogue to current discussions about the industry or if it will just sensationalize Nollywood’s frequent depictions of rituals and witchcraft. Since I’m no longer on my old stomping grounds to see the exhibition in person, I would be more than happy to publish any gallery-goer’s account of the show. What do you think of the concept?

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As part of their new initiative to make public art in a global context, Creative Time commissioned the Scandinavian artist Jakob Boeskov to make a film within the Nollywood community. The result was Dr. Cruel and the Icelandic Liberation Front, an eight-minute short that premiered in May 2010 at the New York African Film Festival of New York.

The film, which Boeskov wrote and co-directed with the Nigerian director Teco Benson, recalled traditional Nollywood productions with its grainy film quality, elementary special effects, and supernatural plot twist. The storyline revolves around a Scandinavian terrorist (played by Boeskov), who arrives in Africa to “start a revolution.” He kidnaps a white oil executive (played by Boeskov’s brother) and demands as ransom the participation of the entire Nigerian police force in anti-violence training.  When negotiations are thwarted, the terrorist resorts to an absurd escape plot, effectively abandoning the spirit of his original goals. The film closes with a somber voice-over: “Our man didn’t change Africa, but Africa changed him.”

While the artistic intent and underlying political message of the film are too complicated to address summarily, it is easy to identify the overall significance of the project. Dr. Cruel is the latest in a recent wave of collaborations between the international arts community and Nollywood (which includes the 2009 Pieter Hugo photography exhibition and the 2004 AFFNY Tunde Kelani film retrospective). This film was funded by Creative Time and the Danish Arts Agency, and the screening was organized in collaboration with AFFNY and NollywoodNYC.

The global recognition of the Nigerian video film industry means that the medium is finally getting its deserved respect. Boeskov openly states his admiration for Nollywood’s DIY culture, contrasting the accessible  nature of its democratic film-making with the arduous three-year-long funding process for his first project.  As Boeskov commented to the audience during the premiere, “Cinema is the only universal language that we have.”

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I was intrigued when I heard about Pieter Hugo’s photography exhibition, Nollywood, at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City. Since Nollywood’s initial development two decades ago, film connoisseurs have largely dismissed the industry’s low production quality and trite plotlines as a “low” form of artistic expression.  For the most part, Nollywood insiders have faced this insult with pride, insisting that cheap retail prices and simple storylines make their films more accessible and familiar to mass African audiences—in ways that more “cultured” industry competitors do not.

In the Nollywood exhibition catalogue, the Nigerian author Chris Abani recalls an exchange that he witnessed at a conference in 2006. After a Cameroonian director placed Nollywood on the same artistic level as Stephen King, a Nigerian director snapped, “I understand why my Francophone friend here is jealous of Nollywood. We sell films–lots of films–without any funds from the EU. People never see his movies, but ours are bestsellers within days. The last Francophone ‘art’ film I saw showed a ten-minute shot of a camel standing in a desert doing nothing, not even shitting. I may not know what art is, but that is not it.”

But are Nollywood’s days as the black sheep of fine art numbered? Hugo’s portraits elevate Nollywood’s grittiness to the pristine white walls of a Chelsea art gallery. The photographer enlists local actors and actresses to recreate Nollywood myths and symbols, and his images of these re-stagings are surreal and unsettling. One photograph depicts a man in a suit hoisting the bloody innards of a bull over his shoulders, with one foot resting on its dismembered carcass.  Yet this striking image is meticulously crafted, professionally framed, and on view at a white cube gallery in the commercial center of New York’s art world. Does such a jarring juxtaposition between the image content and its display foretell the end of Nollywood’s outsider reputation? What do you think?

Update | April 25: When I originally posted this entry, I felt uneasy about Hugo’s representation of “the other” in these photographs, but did not think that I was informed enough to write intelligently about race. Today, I encountered a reaction that articulately dissected these issues.

*Edited by Ms. Nackman

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