Dr. Lisa Aronson and her research
The Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos hosted art curios on September 5 during another Art-iculate lecture, featuring Dr. Lisa Aronson and her research into the world of iconic photographer J.A. Green. Adewole Ajao reports
With the documentation of indigenous photography’s history being left to its custodians, much was left to the imagination concerning the life of Jonathan Adagogo Green. Born in 1873 and passing on in 1905, he holds an enviable position in the history of the modernist art movement in Nigeria due to his early modernist vision. Filling the gaps concerning this important artistic voice was the aim of another Art-iculate lecture that held at the Centre for Contemporary in Lagos on September 5 and featured Dr. Lisa Aronson. There were also key figures from the photography realm like J.D. Ojeikere, Tam Fiofori and Don Barber present during the evening with the theme The Two Worlds of Nigerian Artist/photographer J.A. Green. Fiofori revealed that he was happy the departed photographer was finally getting the attention he deserved after decades of practice.
“I am happy they are talking about him,” he said. “It confirms the fact that photographers are artists and they are also intellectuals.”
After spending over a month in the Niger Delta, fruits of Aronson’s research had crystallised into what was being tagged “the first and only publication on the photographer referred to as J.A Green.” Split into various segments, the trail revealed the topical concerns of Green who was painstaking in his production of varied images depicting foreign and indigenous life. But their interactions were also unearthed by the Aronson research.
Views of British men at work and some posing before a cricket game were juxtaposed with those of locals. Earlier and later shots would display a greater awareness with a British gaze. This was evident in a picture of a maiden clad in nothing more than waist beads and a head scarf. There was also one with a man, woman and the rest of the family kneeling.
“It is a very odd kind of image as though there is a narration,” Aronson explained during the lecture. “This is what he was known for and we feel they were meant for postcards and publications.”
This adoption of his shots by the British for their colonisation ends was further explored on postcards created from a manipulation of original images. Maidens in semi-nude and voyeuristic poses were a form of creative manipulation which also included drawings being derived from pictures. In her view, this explosion of visual culture was a pointer to “an aspect in British English” and the growing disposition of Britons to the creeks. A notable one is Christmas-themed featuring the rested manila currency sporting images of a mud crab, oil palm and mangrove swamp. There were some drawbacks of the British punitive expedition with a shot of the Oba of Benin on a large ship after his forceful eviction from his ancestral home to Calabar. There were other startling revelations during Aronson’s explanation of Green’s numerous images.
“The mangrove swamp is being wiped out by a plant the British planted to choke it.”
The rich heritage of the region was also reflected by Green’s shots. Landmarks like a consulate building and monarchs sporting top hats and walking sticks alongside stuffed tigers spoke volumes of the increasing influences of British colonialism-a departure from earlier images of children and adults with distended stomachs.
There were still arguments on the late photographer’s style with dissenting voices identifying an assimilation of foreign influences after J.D. Ojeikere’s demonstration with an old camera. But Aronson took the middle point by stating Green’s multifarious style of capturing images.
“He was very much Ijaw in mind while taking his pictures. He did not use backdrops or curtains but like using architecture. You could say he is modern by the way he embraced Western ways. He seemed to be working in a way different from other photographers.”
Her observation was similar to that of Tam Fiofori who had earlier shared his beliefs on Green being one of the most important photographers who worked out of Africa.
“I don’t like the theory being pushed that he learnt a lot of tricks from Europeans. I argue that it is like the way the black man played the guitar or saxophone, why can’t a black man approach a camera like a European and have his own creative angle to it?. Like Don Barber pointed out, when you look at his body of work, not only do you see artistic creativity but you also admire his technical efficiency.”