Just as his major exhibition on Nigerian Monarchs closes in London, Dele Meiji Fatunla interviews George Osodi, one of the leading lights of this generation of Nigerian photographers.
I was really struck by the accompanying documentary to the exhibition – you showed the colonial pictures and then you showed yours, so what are you trying to say about the relationship to power and the way that the African monarchs, and other African subjects have been portrayed in the past?
I’m very much concerned about how much interest us, as Africans have in keeping proper photographic documentation of our present for posterity, because I noticed that over the years, most of the documentation done of our past were actually done by foreigners, so I have during my research as a young photographer, I’ve looked at how many of our kings were photographed; I noticed that most of the photographers were taken by foreigners; of course there are a few African photographers who have done portraits, but that notwithstanding, some of them were actually photographed in such a way that there’s a master behind wanting his perspective, even though its an African photographer taken the picture, there’s actually somebody asking him to photograph the process, as against me on my own doing a documentation; no one is asking me, I’m not working for anyone – it’s my project, you know what I’m saying. This is quite rare – you know, most of the photographs of monarchs from Africa, are actually taken by foreigners, and again, the popular ones are the ones that were taken when such kingdoms were being taken over, or being subjugated by colonial powers; but then, we have great respect for our kings in Africa, in Nigeria, especially; most of our kings are kind of mini-lords, you see a lot of symbols in these palaces; you see, like lions, and that’s how they saw themselves – we are the big one here.
In their relationship to themselves, are the kings conscious of that power that they have…are they, you know what I’m trying to get to…the difference between fantasy and reality – how much do they believe in their own command of power?
That’s very good, its very important to note and observe that every king sees himself as A King; the man in authority; so it means that there is a position he is occupying which is the ultimate, before god, before his ancestors; but at this stage he is the king, the man with authority. So the kings see themselves in that position, that’s why they have names, they have titles, and the want to be known for these titles – so it means, they actually recognize that position and that fact, that notion lingers in their brain; so they occupy a seat of authority; people bow for them, and they are very conscious about that.
Well, that’s interesting, we are aware that in a lot of African kingdoms, a lot of African cultures, especially in Nigeria as well, which didn’t have kingdoms, had a lot of kings imposed on them when the British came…you know, warrant chiefs, so what I’m wondering is…do you have any of them in your collection? If not, are they going to be on your list to photograph – and how did you relate to those contexts?
You know this project, again it’s about many things, that have happened; apart form these kingdoms that I’m trying to showcase, I’m also looking at, you know, Kingdoms that existed prior to the British inculcation, and post-colonialism. You know, we’re all Nigerians, there was never a country called Nigeria, until the British came and meshed many of these various kingdoms, and then created some, and also imposed kings – men, who now became kings; warrant chiefs; so its important that we make this historic, and create documents for the future generations to know, and that’s why I’m doing this project; at this point in time, its so sad that I have approached two of such kings; but one was having an issue, when I went to him, he was having a court case; you know, it happens, you know those kingdoms, some are not hereditary, some are passed from different families, you have so many houses; you know you have some of them that were British created kingdom; so, when I went to him, he had a court case, and he told me, look I’m fine with your project, but there’s a court case at this stage, I’ve not been accepted until the ruling; after the ruling I can come back, but for now there are two families fighting for that position, he’s a king at the moment, but he’s not officially the king until the court case is over, otherwise there would have been one of such kings of that era; but many of these kings here; but the main aim of this project is to look at these kingdoms that existed before Nigeria and also the kingdoms that were born after Nigeria, and the kingdoms that were existing, and the British to create a balance gave them that prominence and made robes for them, you know, made warrant kings, and the British created robes for them. So I’m putting them into perspective, you can look at this kingdom (Ikateland) – that’s a new kingdom, in Lagos; it never existed, of course Ikate has existed before Nigeria, but then it was under the Lagos king; but over the years there’ve been such few creations; kings coming up from the big king, so they created such kingdoms….so there are a few of such kingdoms.
And have these been recent?
Yes, exactly these are new kingdoms, created within the 21st century, after Nigeria.
And who creates them…the government…?
It’s not the government; usually it’s the people who will tell you we want to have our kingdom, separate from this kingdom, and the breakaway.
So that’s interesting, so the dynamic process that was happening in Africa before colonialism continues…
Yes, so many kingdoms emerged from kingdoms like the Oyo empire, the Benin kingdom like that; so these are the processes that existed even before the British came, so that process still continues…it didn’t end after colonization; so it meant that kingdom still kept breaking out of kingdoms; that means that the number of kings that are in the country are actually uncountable.
So those people who split away…do they tend to be, the same way that states are splitting…do these always correlate?
You know I quite agree with you; you know every kingdom will split and want to demand for a new state, or you know a new recognition, but then it all depends on the will of the government; the government is the one that has the constitutional to create states or create new kingdoms. They have to approve; so in many cases, if a clan chooses to break out into a new kingdom, if the government is not in approval, it won’t be, actually. Because even though you are a king, the one who will give you the mantle of leadership, is the political elite, the person holding the political power – so the governor of a state.
So the Nigerian government has inherited the mantle of the British colonials?
Yes, now it’s the political structure that has that mantle and power to make kings, so if they people clamoring for new position, and new kingship, then they have to pass their case to the government; so the government has taken over that area of the British power structure. Yeah, that’s that – but then again, I’m a photographer – this is left for historians and anthropologists to do; my position is not to talk too much – it’s to show, and create a platform for historians, and for people to write and talk; so I didn’t want to go to much into politics and history; I want to allow a situation where the pictures will speak; that’s why I want to curate many of these elements, bring a picture out, and it’s left for you the audience to pass your judgment, to do your research, and find out what is this process all about.
There’s a picture of an Oba (of Ado-Ekiti) – and you’ve got an image of the king, essentially, with one of the people who were called Ilaris, people whose hair marked out the message a king was sending. So, it was quite interesting to me that the picture was there – and the question I wanted to ask you is…are those Ilari still there, and do they have their hair marked out exactly that way? And secondly, how much were these very staged photographs, in terms of the decision of how they were portrayed?
Now, in those days, many of those emissaries, Ilaris as you call them, were mostly represented by children; you know kids, and they looked very unkempt; these were many years back – this is like 30 years back; if you go to many kingdoms – that style is very common in the Yoruba, when it comes to Akure, Ekiti, Ondo – and they have that hairstyle where they have half of the hair completely shaved and the other half. I don’t know the meaning behind that.
Well, the meaning is that, so for example, all of them have messages – so in the past, so before…like writing…if the king sent you somebody whose hairstyle meant ‘I’m very angry with you’ – the moment he showed up, you’d know what he was saying. So that’s why I ask if they still maintain that…
Yes, they do maintain that, it’s a culture they’ve passed on over the years, you know; but you see how different it has become; now, the majority of such people have become adults and then, dressed properly, not some kids wear little cloth…bare chest, you know looking haggard; so in most cases, the kind of things that concern me – this is the way they were being photographed way back, by the foreign photographers, but then that was what was existing; but people still think that’s what was existing – but the culture does still exist but mostly in a much more 21st century style – and that’s what I’m trying to portray with some of these pictures here. That’s what exists now. The kingships and kingdoms are not too left out from the new globalization trend; everything is not kept in the hold; they still try to modernize – some of them are very well connected with the Internet. I mean there’s a king there, very old king, with his ipad; some of them use computers – not just use computers. If you look at the Dein of Agbor, of course he’s very well connected; but that particular king, is an old school, he comes from a very old king – but yet he’s very internet compliant – he has his ipad, he’s online doing research – and you can see from the palace how modernized things have been. You can see in the furniture in the palaces…a lot of them have their furniture imported, and they buy foreign furniture, as against the old that would have their furniture made locally.
But surely that’s not a positive?
That’s not a positive, but then it’s again, about impression, and globalization, and then it goes a long way to telling you, how things have changed over time; the kings always want the best things; if he can’t find it locally, then they go elsewhere to find it. So you can see that element has an interplay in the photographs that were taken at many of these palaces. So, I wanted to create that platform for discourse, for people to begin to interact and see how things are interconnected.
In terms of the palaces…did you have unrestricted access; I’m sure a lot of people would have loved to have seen more of the emir of Katisina’s palace and the Ooni of Ife’s…Did you take pictures of the interiors?
Yeah, in this project everything has been done, it’s just an exhibition were a little has been shown, or could be seen, because it’s a big project – it’s a big book project; so everything is interplaying with each other; I’m not just photographing the kings portrait – I’m also looking at a few elements that are found in their kingdoms – the architecture, the heritage. So that photograph there, is the emir of Kano’s palace, and that’s the ceiling – so these things have existed for centuries and they’re still being maintained. So you know it’s not just the kings alone but also the things that are found within the space of their environment. It’s more of an environmental portraiture.
How did you relate to your subject…in terms of…particular in Nigeria, gaining access to anybody important powerful involves a lot of negotiation – how difficult was that for you?
Very difficult, there are two most difficult parts of this project; first is access, second is getting yourself to the spot; Nigeria is a very big country, travelling is very tedious – it meant, you have to keep travelling all the time, so I’ve been travelling, traveling, travelling for the past two years, just to create this body of work; But I noticed that, if you are aware…today’s kings, 80% of them are very literate and have exposure to foreign culture as well; so it means, if they have a knowledge of what it is you are doing, it will be of interest to them, so they will support you in whichever way they can; the kings I was able to reach – when I told them I was doing this work, and wanted to create a record of them in their time for posterity, and trying to show the world how rich and diverse, the country is in terms of culture, they love the idea; they gave me every support that I needed; but it didn’t come that easy, you can’t just walk up to a king. There are people you have to meet first – and that’s the problem, having to convince those people – a lot of those people are actually chiefs, or the PA to the king; people who you need to pass messages to get to the king; that’s where the problem is; sometimes, 80% of the ones I’ve met – initially they didn’t get the message, so it was tough to break that barrier and gain access to the king, except you push really hard. Sometimes some of them would just trash my idea and trash my letter, like ‘no, no, no I don’t think the king would be interested in this’ – so they are not doing their duty. But some were doing their duty, and they passed on the letter, and if the king read, and he’s interested, he gets them to call you back, and then you have an audience with him. So that’s how I could get access – some obviously, even though I wrote letters through the secretaries, they trashed it. So I had to…I am very…I would say I’m lucky…I’m very influential as a photographer in the country, so, I have friends who have access to some of the kings, and I also have friends who are family members; so if I try the official way and there’s a barrier, then it means I will use my contacts to now have access. So believe me, many of them happened through that way – it’s a 50-50 thing; 50% happened through the right channel, writing a letter through the council….some would say no, and if I really wanted the king to be represented, I would call up someone who is the son or daughter of the king, and say ‘hey, I’ve been trying to reach your dad, please could you help me get to your dad, and tell him, there’s this person trying to reach your dad….you see, so, so many intrigues….
Who were you most desperate to have photographed for this project?
Well, that’s a wrong word, I was never desperate of anybody – it’s not a political…
Who did you really want to have in this exhibition?
There was none, that was…a particular king that I needed to have…I’m saying this becayse its really; but then again, you don’t fall in love with something until you know it; so maybe I could answer after this encounter with one or two kings…these kings I really love because of the way I was received. For instance, there are kings I didn’t know until I met them, for instance, the Dein of Agbor; I know him, I’ve read about him, but he’s not a friend…he’s a king and I have no relationship with him…but when I wrote him a letter, and he replied and invited me to the palace, he treated me with so much respect – he attached a lot of importance – because I felt he was a 21st Century king, he knew who I was. It’s one thing to write a letter to somebody, it’s another thing for the person to do research and find out who you are; obviously, the way the king treated me, I felt he had probably googled my name – and found that this is somebody doing the right thing; and he had that love for me, and gave me so much access, and applauded what I was doing – because he knew what I was doing. So for me, I also fell in love – I realized that if I could be so loved by this king, I could also give in return the respect and love that this king gave to me. For that I attached so much attention to his personality and his kingdom; and he is one king that is my number one becayuse of the way he gave me access; not only him but again [the old man] and also the emir of Kano. This are all powerful kings, but they also made me feel like a little king as well; but notwithstanding, there were some who actually said no – who didn’t want me around; who felt…you know…probably attached some political tone to what I was doing, so they didn’t find it interesting. You won’t believe that some kings were very particular about which region I came from, and for that reason because I came from this region I wouldn’t be given access to photograph them, because they now attached a connotation to it. So, two ways – but again, I have to move on, and do what I need to do.
When you were photographing them – a lot of the kings – were there areas, things you couldn’t access or things you couldn’t talk about?
Of course! That’s why I told you, it’s very deep; I’m a photographer – I am not a writer, or a historian, who would spend time – discussing access to one or two information; I didn’t have that time – and it is not my responsibility to dig into some secrecy; in every one’s life there’s an element of secrets, or things that you don’t want the outside world to know. Remember it’s a palace and there things taking place, happening; it’s not everything the palace would want the world to know; it’s not peculiar to Nigerian palaces alone; go to England, to the dutch or to Norway, or to Japan. That you must be very aware of; I didn’t ask for any special thing – all I wanted was a portrait of the king in his regalia, in his place of throne. I just wanted that, nice, colourful looking outfit of the king.
Your gaze is very sympathetic – and very majestic actually…
Yes, I wanted that level of majestic display; the kings to show themselves as the lions that they truly say they are…you go to the Igbo king, they say obi-ago, you know, awolo, esin – the kings call themselves these names of powerful animals. You see them having skins, elephant skins, elephant tusks in their palaces; signifying that I am an elephant – I am the king of the jungle….So I wanted that to be seen in the picture, I wanted them to display that level of elegance, and style and authority.
A lot of the impetus of this seems to be…you’re very focused on the historical significance of what you’re doing and its documentation; so a lot of this work is going to, collected, either privately or by museums across the world, what are the strategies for you as a photographer, in maintaining some level of connection to Nigeria…are there going to be reproductions of the work?
I mean I’m Nigerian obviously; but then I do things of global interest; you know, you’d be amazed there are so many Nigerian collectors now; fine, many of these works will be collected internationally by museums in Germany, in US and England, but again, there are also Nigerian collectors who are very interested, who have seen the work and they are right behind me; but again, that notwithstanding, there are lots of work with different editions – so theres something for almost everyone. But most importantly, the project will be available in the form of a book, which will be available for anyone – so that’s my first primary target – to do a book for this project.
Is there a publisher secured?
Not yet, but that’s not a problem; I’ve done one book already and getting a publisher is not a problem when you have good stuff. So yes, in the end it will be in book form and that will be very accessible to everyone – and it’s going to be a top quality book – which will also be a book that will serve as an art material – so even if you don’t have the actual photograph hanging in your museum or on your wall, you will have pictures which actually gives you a broader perspective, and it’s an archival book.
What’s the next project for you? Are you going to just sleep for a while?
I am a workaholic – and a perfectionist; so I’m never satisfied – that’s what has kept me going – and that’s what has brought me this far. I may not have an answer to your question right now, because I am still in this project but believe me as I round up this project, there’s something in the making. There’s always something, that’s why you need the mental ability as a photographer to be very active – you know photography requires a lot of mental and physical energy; if you don’t have it, it’s difficult.
Andrew Dosumnu, another photographer, made the jump from photography to making films? Are you tempted?
Well, I am…it’s about choice and passion; for me, at this stage, what I know id photography. But who knows, tomorrow, I could fall in love with film. And I decide to create one or two films, but that doesn’t mean my photography is going to suffer – no, no, why not? If I have an interest in making a film – I could be a good film-maker if I choose to, because I know I have the eye, you know, so – I’m not tempted but you know there’s every possibility, if I see something interesting that I could choose to represent in a film, using a film to do that, I could. It’s all the lens, there’s not much difference.
You’re a Lagos man – what’s your tip for where to spend a great weekend in Lagos?
Lagos is…my best city in the world….Lagos City…so, there are so many places to spend the weekend, depending on what you’re looking at…and how you want to spend your weekend.
Apart from behind closed doors?
Well, I cannot recommend anywhere for you…but then I would advise you to come to Lagos, maybe I can take you to one or two places….there are lots of places, depending on what you want to do; you want to go clubbing, you want to go picknicking…adventure; Nigeria is more of an adventure country; it’s less of a tourist country – so I think if you’re that type who loves adventure, then Lagos and many other cities in Nigeria, is the right place to be.