Pieter Hugo, Dike Ngube and Gold Gabriel, Enugu, Nigeria, 2008
All images courtesy Pieterhugo.com
For some time now, there have been quite a bit of critical bellyaching by especially Nigerians angered by "Nollywood" the latest series of photographs by the South African artist, Pieter Hugo. I became aware of these knee-jerk criticisms in a Nigerian writers-artists listserve months ago, but the drama according to some reliable source reached bizarre levels, with a recent serious threat made by a Nigerian "academic" based in the US to one of the contributing essayists in Hugo's photobook, Nollywood. The largely misguided attacks, which often degenerate to calling Hugo a racist, and the Nigerian collaborators "unpatriotic" writers, have not stopped. This critique by Ikhide Ikheloa (whose writings I admire) in 234Next newspaper is the latest.
Pieter Hugo, Maureen Obise, Enugu, Nigeria, 2009
I cannot disagree more with Ikheloa's claim that Hugo's "Nollywood" images are "plain awful photography." As Photographs they are masterful in the way he uses lighting to suggest the tension between realism and dark fantasy, for instance. This and his other work, as photographs, belong to the best tradition of critical realism, even if the subject matter of the "Nollywood" series troubles, even violates, our sense of the real. The framing of the figures within the picture plane, the rigid, frontal and confrontational poses contribute to the viewer's discomfort as much as what the images depict. Like so many critics of Hugo, Ikheloa fails to contend with Hugo's work as an artist, such as how his formal choices and methods participated in the production of the shock of the images. The critic seems to see the work as some kind of journalism or exposition about the Nigerian film industry, a nasty lie about how people live in Nigeria. This is reductive and simplistic. As the artist has pointed out, what he did was ask makeup artists who normally work for the Nigerian film industry to invent characters and scenarios for yet-to-exist Nollywood films. That is to say, he allowed, or rather made it possible for them to explore their artistic imagination and creative fantasies based on their familiarity with the visual rhetoric of Nollywood. If the resulting characters/scenarios seem quite hyperbolic, because of the ease with which they evoke darkly and violently surreal states of existence, does this not point to more complex questions about the relationship between creativity and patronage, between the proliferating imagination of makeup artists and the possibilities of a visual and filmic rhetoric often derived from popular lore and firmly dedicated to mass
Pieter Hugo, Chris Nkulo and Patience Umeh, Enugu, Nigeria, 2008
It is, I must say, repressed and/or screaming nationalism, not art critical sensibility, that compels cries about misrepresentation of the Nigerian film industry in the work of an artist. Indeed to expect a work of art to either support/represent or criticize/misrepresent the Nigerian film industry is to ask art to do the work of propaganda. (Of course art is sometimes drawn in to do this, but it is always to the detriment of that art. To imagine a direct unmediated tie between art and reality is to miss the point of art). In any case, it is the same twisted nationalist impulse that made the writer/scholar Catherine Acholonu--a government official at the time--condemn Chris Ofili's painting Holy Virgin Mary (1996) as un-African, following the stupid firestorm caused by New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani's miserable threat to the Brooklyn Museum for showing the work. It is siege mentality--what happens when a society runs itself into a corner where stereotypes are as viable as the society's "truths"--that makes her citizens, patriots at heart, hypersensitive to anything that has the appearance of uncharitable commentary about that society, especially by "outsiders" such as Pieter Hugo.
Quite clearly, critics who accuse Hugo of racism have not seen his earlier body of work called "Messina/Musina," which consists of difficult, hard portraits of his fellow WHITE South Africans living in a northern Transvaal town. Of course, the criticism of this series of photographs would then shift to questions about class and privilege. By which time your realize that you have to really and meaningfully engage with the complexity of the work both in terms of its formal qualities and its conceptual breadth.