At 80, age is already telling on JD Okhai Ojeikere’s face as he walks into the expansive hall at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Sabo Yaba, this Thursday afternoon. Yet, his sturdy frame still stands tall.
Ojeikere is a well-known Nigerian photographer whose works have traversed different continents. Through his lens, he has been able to document different aspects of the Nigerian history since the 1950s. Among his collections is the famous series on women hairstyles across cultures in Nigeria, images of Nigeria as a nation on the verge of independence, photographs of the lifestyle of colonialists in the country and the stage-by stage transition of Lagos to a modern city in the 1960s, among others. His ‘Hair Style’ collection, a record of over 1,000 different hairstyles, started in 1968 and has become priceless in the study of Nigerian cultural differences.
Little wonder Ojeikere exhibited a collection of his works titled: ‘Moment of Beauty’ at ARS 11, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland. “The exhibition highlights the breadth and depth of Ojeikere’s practice,” says Bisi Silva, who was the exhibition’s co-curator with Aura Seikkula. “It chronicles his experiences as a visual artist and commercial photographer by presenting works that cover a range of subjects including architecture, education, fashion, social life and cultural festivals.”
The exhibition will be the first most comprehensive compilation of Ojeikere’s work to date. With over 150 works, a whole floor out of the five floors of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Finland will be devoted to his works. “Occasionally elegiac, but invariably elegant, the photographs in this exhibition reflect what the artist deems as “moments of beauty,” referring to the ebullience of Nigerian life engendered by independence and decolonisation,” adds Silva.
Ojeikere’s works span more than half a century. He photographed Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Nigeria in 1956, documented the lifestyle of students between 1956 and 1972 at the University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan), among others. He has succeeded in chronicling life in Nigeria after independence, including the dream and aspiration of a nation to educate its populace. “As such, ‘Moments of Beauty’ provides in-depth perspectives to the practice of an artist whose formidable archive has become an important anthropological, ethnographic, and artistic treasure,” adds Silva. “The exhibition opens on April 15 till the end of November in Finland.”
After colonisation ended, Ojeikere set up his own studio christened: Foto Ojeikere. He later became an active member of the Nigeria Art Council; while organising festivals of visual and living arts. Ever since, he has not looked back, as he devoted his life to the documentation of Nigerian culture.
Ojeikere’s hard work is visible in his collection. He has passionately built a compendium of Nigerian history with great passion and discernment. In all his works, he focuses on the social, political and cultural transformations which occurred in the country’s shift from a colonial state to an independent country. “It’s good to know he works consistently as a photographer,” Amaize Ojeikere says of his father. He is a hardworking photographer and has maintained that.”
His tenacity and hard work must have won him the Life Achievement award at the Chobi Mela VI, an international festival of photography held in Bangladesh in January. He was honoured alongside Pedro Meyer and Naib Uddin Ahmed, contemporary photographers from Mexico and Bangladesh respectively.
Ojeikere was away on a holiday last Christmas when he got a mail about the honour. He was not in Lagos and never planned to return to the city until his holiday was over. “I feel some 25 years younger,” says Ojeikere of the award received on his behalf by his daughter in law, Folake. “I couldn’t imagine that things like this will ever happen in my life. I am extremely happy that at my old age, things are taking a different turn.”
Even at his twilight, Ojeikere still takes pictures of things that catch his fancy. When asked what subjects interest him at old age, he simply says: “Anything that appeals to me, I photograph. Two weeks ago, I took shots of a gathering cloud.” However, Folake brings a twist to the question when she says: “I asked daddy that same question some time ago and he told me: ‘I would like to take pictures of nudes.’”
Most of the images Ojeikere took in his career were simply for the love of art. But today, they have become a treasure trove. “It was later in life that I realised I have a treasure,” he tells me. “All the shots I took in 1955, I kept. I never threw any away. I kept all the negatives. I was not commissioned to take any of them.”
Art lovers and critics have defined his works in many ways, depending on how they appeal to them. The official website of Chobi mela has this to say about Ojeikere: “While the exotica of Africa has been documented by many, it is JD Okhai Ojeikere’s archives of Nigerian and African culture that give us an insight into everyday life and social patterns of the region in the 60s and allow us to make comparisons with today.
“His formal investigations, documentary work and various commercial endeavours capture the unique atmosphere and élan of Nigeria during a period of great euphoria and ambivalence,” Silva observes. “Practising since the early 1950’s, Ojeikere is a leading artist of his generation, devoted to the art of image making, the history of his country and the critical possibilities of the photographic medium.”