An eight-day visual feast featuring easily glossed-over everyday scenes in Lagos opened recently in one of the city’s leading galleries. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Courtesy: Voice of Nigeria

No, it’s not just the visual euphony of the beach, with its muted golden sands, contrasting with the cerulean backdrop of the sea and the sky. Something else—obviously, the sunny, carefree disposition of two topless kids, whose bodies appear half-buried in a heap of sand—seems to tug at the heartstrings and induce the viewer to experience the yearning tenderness of a reverie.

Yet, this photograph by Bolaji Alonge, titled “Precious & Favour”—after the names of the frolicking pair—tells a refreshing story of Lagos, which belies its often-maligned international image. Hence, it’s not uncommon to find many first-time foreign visitors to this sprawling littoral city of well over 21 million inhabitants swooning under the spell of its hospitable charms. This is often in contrast to the cautionary tales of uninformed do-gooders.

Precious & Favour by Bolaji Alonge

Another photograph, “Mushin Train Station” by Motolani Bello, though taken some time this year, dredges up the nostalgic memories of this Lagos neighbourhood’s buried history and long-lost innocence of the colonial years. Then, there is a painting by Akinsola Olamilekan that is primarily in monochrome and shows the front of a minibus taxi, known as “Danfo”, on the streets of Lagos with its three occupants, including the driver. One of the passengers is highlighted in russet or maroon in the foreground, while the other passenger and the driver blend into the monochrome background of the entire painting.

These works are only part of the many featured at the exhibition, titled Iconic Lagos, which opened on Saturday, September 17 at the Didi Museum along Akin Adesola Street in the upper-crust Lagos neighbourhood of Victoria Island. An art project organised by Eyes of a Lagos Boy, which runs until Sunday, September 25, the visual feast is about the celebration of everyday life in this termite-dense mega city, which is arguably Africa’s most vibrant cultural hub.

Mushin Train Station by Motolani Bello

About 400 entries were received by the organisers when they published a call for submissions, which lasted from July 12 to August 15. Twenty artworks by artists from the US, India, South Africa, Belgium, Benin Republic, the UK, Abuja, Osogbo and Lagos eventually made it to the physical exhibition while the others are being displayed in a digital format. “The artists all capture the idea of Lagos that we intend to showcase and we are proud to work with these amazing talents,” enthuses Bolaji Alonge, the pivotal figure of the Eyes of a Lagos Boy brand. “Over the years, I have encouraged young Nigerians to take up the camera to express themselves. Opening up my platform to others is a natural next step.”

In his foreword of the exhibition catalogue, ace photographer Kelechi Amadi-Obi decries the incessant complaints about the unflattering depiction of Africa’s image in the international media. “My question has always been what happened to our storytellers,” he writes. “The ultimate responsibility for changing this negative narrative lies in the hands of Africa’s image makers. In pre-colonial times our stories were handed down from one generation to the next by the great griots and this formed their perception of self.”

Kalakuta Museum by Bolaji Alonge, 2017

Meanwhile, besides Alonge and Jason Ogbazi, who are the show’s anchormen, the 20 featured artists are Adepegba David, Akande John, Akinsola Olamilekan, Awosola Michael Angello, Motolani Bello, Joydeep Bose, Buthelezi Mpumelelo, Tosan Dudun, Jean-Fidèle Ananou Ebenezer, Falore Olamiposi, Razaq Folami, Genco Sanli, OC George, Gaspard Linouenou Koutchika, Lanre Lawal, Holly Muse, Okechukwu Samuel, Olaosun Oluwapelumi, Oluwayemisi Onadipe and Kola Onifoto Orowale. Then, there is also the former editor of Happy Home Magazine, Muni King-Keazor, who is being featured as a guest artist.

Several photographs made by the recently deceased multi-talented movie director Biyi Bandele are, as a tribute to his life, also included in the show, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Bandele, who had spent a lot of time in Lagos in recent years, was known to have regularly chronicled Lagos Island on social media.

A three-pronged offering, the exhibition consists of photography by Bolaji Alonge; his mixed-media artworks with Jason Ogbazi; and those of other artists. The idea is for the artists, who easily warmed up to the task, to highlight what they consider to be their iconic Lagos. For this is a city that is not only the birthplace of the local film industry, known as Nollywood, but also of Afrobeat(s), Nigerian arts, and fashion, as well as a sort of melting-pot, where tradition and futurism coexist in the daily lives of its inhabitants, where rich neighbourhoods bloom alongside poorer ones, and where the scourge of poor infrastructure looms large. 

Alonge’s Eyes of Lagos Boy has carved a niche for itself through its chronicling of history from an African perspective, with sights set, at the same time, on achieving fair representation.

View of National Theatre Building, Iganmu, Lagos, June 15, 2016 Landscape by Gaspard Lihouenou Koutchika

“Defining our own image is one way of taking charge of our future,” says the dreadlocks-sporting artist. “We need to consciously move away from the poverty porn images that the internet is flooded with. ICONIC LAGOS presents a narrative that will remain tattooed on the viewers’ retina. Celebrating the beauty around us in spite of everyday challenges and the current global instability is not [a] luxury, it is a necessity.”

Since May 2017, when he held his maiden solo exhibition, Eyes of a Lagos Boy, at the Freedom Park in Lagos Island, Alonge has wormed his way into the art community’s consciousness as a cultural activist with a predilection for documenting history. His subsequent exhibitions—Urban Culture-Historical Continuity at the Ikoyi, Lagos-based One Draw Gallery in November 2018; Baza Studio in New York, the USA in February 2019; and Black & White at Quintessence, Lagos in July 2019—established him as a cultural activist. 

Among his other professional highlights was his performance of “Afrobeat: The Legacy” at Freedom Park during Felabration 2019, which was dedicated to Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela Kuti’s eldest son. In November 2020, he and seven other photographers displayed “Nigeria Trending” at the Lagos Fringe Festival, covering the # EndSARS protests, and in February 2021, he showed “Street Flowers of Lagos” at Temple Muse.

More recently, in September 2021, his Greener Pastures exhibition, dedicated to riverine communities in Lagos, was first shown to critical acclaim at the Didi Museum in Lagos, then as part of the Lagos Fringe Festival and ICAB Biennale from November to December 2021, and finally at the IREP 2022 documentary festival in Lagos.

His collaborator for this project, Jason Nnamdi Ogbazi, is a Nigerian-born accomplished artist and designer, who, while in the UK for his higher education, had started working alongside top fashion photographers and designers.

After the exhibition’s Saturday VIP opening, which was headlined by an opening performance by Wannixhandi and Jeanshiki Couture, a visual storytelling masterclass for seasoned photographers has been planned for Tuesday, September 20, while an art workshop for children between the ages of five and 15 will be held on Saturday, September 24.

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