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Sancintya Simpson reviews Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Alien images confront the viewer upon entering Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art. Pieter Hugo’s photographic series Nollywood blurs perceptions between what is real and unreal, and opens the Nigerian film industry (the third largest film industry in existence) to Western eyes. His multi-layered photographic work brings many pressing questions to light.

The gaze of the subject is what makes this series so confronting. These subjects look directly into the camera, their gazes meet with yours, the camera and the photographer stand between, yet no intensity is lost. Even though these are staged images, they are depictions of what the Nigerian communities fear. These truths once again blend the documentary conventions with the staged, leaving the viewer to question their place as the viewer, afraid to stare too long at these images for fear of being stared right back.

The framed, square images are evenly spaced throughout the gallery walls. As the viewer walks past each image the intensity is as dramatic and high as the first. Men, woman and children, painted white, wearing masks, covered in blood, white eyed; images of death and the dying. Each image is filled with symbols that convey the fears and realities of the local communities; tales of lost morals, death and religion. Critic Federica Angelucci wrote in response to the series that the “aesthetic is loud, violent, excessive; nothing is said, everything is shouted.” Each image of the staged actors, posed on the harsh streets of Enugu, ties another knot in your stomach.

Pieter Hugo
Major Okolo and Do Somtin, Enugu, Nigeria, 2008

Malachy Udegbunam with children Enugu, Nigeria (2008) depicts a Nigerian man dressed as Jesus Christ with wounded hands and a crown of thorns. He stands with a hand raised, the other placed on a child’s shoulder; the pot-bellied children are reminiscent of those oh-so familiar documentary images situated in near mirrored locations and conditions. Other images in the series could more likely be actual truths. Major Okolo and Do Somtin, Enugu, Nigeria (2008) depicts a man holding a dead solider who could very well be his son, if it wasn’t for the prior knowledge of the photographs staged nature, one may naively think this was in fact a snapshot of real life.

The imagery in this series of tableaux work brings to mind a thousand narratives, all surprisingly grim. The photographer himself is captured in a self-portrait. Tattooed; his white flesh stands in stark contrast and in juxtaposition against the other images in the series. He stands with an axe in his hand, wearing nothing but brown underwear, a black balaclava and black gloves. By placing himself in amongst the gangsters, prostitutes, saviours, devils, the un-dead and the dead, Hugo opens doors by asking the audience to question his place and his role as the photographer and a subject. Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) claims that, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” In this way Hugo comments on himself as the perpetrator, taking advantage of his subjects through the use of the camera.

Does Hugo’s series communicate Nigerian issues of poverty, violence, war, abuse of women and death, more than an actual bona-fide image of these events? By creating a link from the staged to the straight documentary photograph, does this allow us to re-visit issues which we have become desensitised to? Is it because these portrayals of suffering are in such great juxtaposition to western Hollywood films depicting the rich, wealthy and humorous that we are called to question our place as the viewer, and our entitlement to view and judge?

Nollywood runs from the 25th September to the 20th of November 2010 at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

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