Through George Osodi’s photographic lenses, the plight of the ravaged oil-producing Niger Delta comes to life, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
“There’s so much to do, man!”
Confidence and excitement oozed from George Osodi. He gestured with his hands to emphasise the fact that there was indeed so much to do. From his seat across the table behind empty green bottles of lager beer, he peered intently at his interviewer. He might as well have been giving a lecture rather than an interview.
To be sure, this slightly-built photographer has every reason to be confident and excited. His has been a laborious ascent up the rungs of fame. His years of dues-paying, which began in a defunct Lagos-based newspaper, The Comet, ended on a lustrous note with his seven-year long stint with The Associated Press. Currently, reputable galleries worldwide have continued to drool over his phenomenal Niger Delta oil-spill shots.
It was a late Thursday morning. This almost deserted poolside bar of an Ikoyi-based art-themed hotel seemed most suited for a private chat. For one thing, it was still too early and uncomfortably sunny for normal drinkers. For another, the hubbub of conversations from the inner ground floor bar was shut out.
Even so, snatches of laughter and conversations escaped wafted through the glass doors each time the hotel’s waiters passed through them.
Floating somewhere in the cranial recesses of the interviewer’s memories was Osodi’s close shave with death. That was long before he relocated briefly to London.
He was on his way home on one of the crowded Lagos Mainland neighbourhoods after hanging out with friends in a Southwest Ikoyi-based gallery and had boarded was one of those yellow-painted notorious Lagos commercial mini buses. Its obviously drunken driver seemed only too willing to commit the steering into the hands of the Supreme Being. This was even as he kept the vehicle groaning at a hair-raising speed. Protests from his panic-stricken passengers were drowned by his raucous binding of the devil and postulating an infernal abode for his critics.
When the inevitable happened on the Third Mainland Bridge, it turned out to be the driver and a few other people who kept the ultimate date with the Grim Reaper. Osodi, reeling from the injuries he had sustained from the accident, soon passed out. But this was not before he had put a distress call through to one of his associates in Ikoyi. The cell phone, with which he had made the call, was promptly snatched away from him by marauding scavengers.
This accident eventually inspired one of his photography projects, titled Driver’s Dexterity. The project took the photographer on a tour of the country’s major highways scouring for accident scenes. His photographs featured at an exhibition, which was sponsored by the multinational oil company Shell in collaboration with the African Artists’ Foundation.
It was during one of his several visits from his then base in London that Osodi first seriously warmed up to the idea of documenting his photographs in coffee table books. A copy of the first of his dream publications, titled Delta Nigeria: The Rape of Paradise, lay before him at the poolside bar. The 304-page hardcover book was published on September 30, 2011 by Trolley Books.
While Osodi worked with the AP as a photo editor, he documented the ravages of the oil-producing communities by the activities of the oil companies. His photographs, many of which have been shown in exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria, are visual narratives of existential struggles in the impoverished region.
Through close up portraits and landscapes shots, taken with a wide-angled lens, as well as portraits with dramatic foregrounds or backgrounds, more often than not showing blazing inferno or dense clouds of dark smoke, he continually draws the world’s attention to the plight of these people. A viewer is confronted with close-up shots of camouflaged MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) militants armed to the teeth.
That these oil-producing communities do not benefit from the huge amount of wealth created in their highly degraded environment confounds the world. Yet, through Osodi’s lenses the viewer is confronted with scenes of ordinary life in these communities. “People are of great value to me, especially what I call the real people,” Osodi was quoted as saying in the publication, Pale Reflections and Fables of Life: George Osodi’s “Real People” of the Niger Delta. “They are a source of joy and inspiration to me. In recent times, the impact of oil in the lives of most oil producing regions has been highly paradoxical…I want to put a human face on this paradise lost.”
Offering his interviewer an autographed copy of the well-produced book, he lifted the veil on the other book projects still in the works.
Invitations to international art platforms have, meanwhile, continued to whizz his way. His latest four-city tour has so far taken him to Manchester, Liverpool, London and Paris. At the Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, his exhibition not only featured his patented the Niger Delta photographs, but also explored the concept of modern-day slavery.
Osodi’s recent solo exhibitions featured at the Rencontres de Bamako in Mali in 2011; RAW Materials Company in Dakar, Senegal in 2011; Galerie Peter Hermann in Berlin in 2009 and Haugesund in Norward in 2008, among several others.
Among his recent group shows were: Environment and Object, present African Art at the Tang Museum at Skidemore College, Saratoga, New York, USA in 2011; Ghana Gold – De Moneyat the 6th Curitiba Biennial, Brazil in 2011; Uneven Geographies at Nottingham Contemporary, UK in 2010, Afrika in Oslo at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway in 2009; Documenta 12, Kassel, Germany in 2007.
His photographs have been published in international publications. These include the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, The Economist, The International Herald Tribune The Guardian Newspaper (UK), The Telegraph (UK), CNN and the BBC.
His photographs also adorn major international collections including the Smithsonian Museum in New York, USA; EMET, the National Museum of Greece; the Martin Marguiles Collection in Miami and the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel in Germany.