The Photography of Okhai Ojeikere / Patterns, Post-Colonial Nigeria & Paternal Influence

Okhai Ojeikere / Patterns, Post-Colonial Nigeria, and Paternal Influence

At his 80th birthday party, in speaking with the man, who discovered his gift at an early age in the small village of Ogute in Emai in Edo State in 1950, Okhai Ojeikere shares, "Photography is my calling and as a matter of fact, I can't imagine myself to have settled for any other option ... I am a fulfilled man, I feel on top of the world, I feel very highly honoured, I am grateful to God."

Pa Ojeikere and “Hair Style”
Nigerian photographer Okhai Ojeikere has over 5,000 photographs in his archives and a career spanning 60 years through the post-colonial Nigerian socio-political landscape. The octogenarian was born in 1930 in Ojomo Emai, Nigeria and began his photography career in 1950 when he purchased a Brownie camera for two pounds sterling. By 1961, he was a still photographer with a Nigerian TV station before opening his own studio, Foto Ojeikere, in 1975. In 1968, Ojeikere began one of his most celebrated projects, “Hair Style.” Simply named but delicately executed, “Hair Style” includes almost 1,000 black-and-white images of intricate Nigerian hairstyles that embody a regal and sculptural quality. Ojeikere’s motivation for his project speaks to me as both a photographer and historian. In an exhibition review on the University of Houston’s Blaffer Museum site, the reviewer writes:

While working on a series of photographs for the Nigerian Arts Council in 1968, Ojeikere became acutely aware of the cultural importance of this slowly fading tradition and set out to preserve it on film. Since then Ojeikere has made it a practice to photograph women's hairdos whenever he encounters a singular, truly exceptional creation, be it on the street, at work, or at parties, and over the years he has compiled a comprehensive archive of over a thousand photographs of hairstyles from all over Nigeria. Each hairstyle speaks to an ancient history, an accumulated knowledge, and the present state of a living culture. These intricate creations involve many hours, sometimes even days, of braidwork assembled in weave-like, linear patterns. For Ojeikere ‘hairstyling is a form of art. When you see a hairstylist do this or that, every single movement is precise and rapid. She creates a hairstyle the way a sculptor would work -- from nothing. It's fascinating.’

Seeking to preserve that which seems tragically ephemeral, his work is part of a wider discourse on post-colonial identity and the vulnerability of traditional practices in rather unpredictable times. His conversation around the “hairstyling as a form of art” is thoughtful and leaves me questions around whether there are images of the hair braiders at work in his archives. I am fascinated by the process -- the juxtaposition of the before and after, the dexterity of these women’s hands and the angling of their backs as they sculpt intricate patterns. In the photographs that are public, Ojeikere makes strategic decisions about how he shoots his subjects. In his “Hair Style” photographs, you may notice that many are profiles or backs of heads. When asked about why he chose this perspective, Ojeikere noted, “a photograph of the face reveals nothing, while those of the back are almost abstract…”

Family of Photographers
Living in a home with Ojeikere, it’s hard to imagine how you’d not eventually fall in love with photography as well. His second son Amaize Ojeikere is now a full-time photographer while his other son, Iria Ojeikere, is a part-time photographer. Amaize’s work, like his father’s, is concerned with elaborate patterns. While his father was more concerned with the intricacies of Nigerian hairstyles, as South African publication Snapped: A Quarterly Magazine for Photography from Africa writes:

Amaize Ojeikere's recent work deals with images of the men and woman who sell various products on the streets and roads of Lagos, and the intricate forms and patterns in which they arrange themselves. According to Ojeikere, the seemingly haphazard congestion of today's Nigerian streets naturally forms patterned compositions which he sees as beauty contained within its opposite. Ojeikere suggests in his writings that these contrasts establish a metaphor for Lagos' affluence and poverty and the dramatic contrasts that define the streets of Nigeria.

Amaize’s work seems intriguing and timely, especially as many African nations are making sense of spatial politics in ever-urbanizing and congested spaces. Having lived in South Africa -- once in Cape Town, and more recently in Johannesburg -- the intricate patterns of street vendors, minibus taxis, missionaries, and homeless migrants is an especially compelling photographic narrative. As Amaize’s work suggests, while dangerously chaotic, there is something lyrical and fascinating about how people spatially organize themselves in African cities like Lagos. Amaize’s work, like his father, is grounded in the symbolism behind intricate and sometimes unconscious patterns.

The photographic influence doesn’t stop with Okhai Ojeikere sons Amaize and Iria; Pa Ojeikere's 6-year old grandson’s photograph was featured in his one-day 80th birthday exhibition, “J.D. Okhai Ojeikere: A Life in Pictures, Portraits of a Photographer” held at Frameshop Extra, Chic Afrique House Sabo in Yaba, Lagos.

Clearly, the photographic eye spans all generations.

Current Shows
Okhai Ojeikere work is currently featured at Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg, South Africa. The retrospective entitled “Titled Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday” starts on February 3, and closes on March 28, 2011.

Explore some more of his photos below:

{ exclusive feature}
by Kameelah Rasheed (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)

Originally Posted 1/22/2011

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