The archival pictures, dredged from the estate of Nina Fischer-Stephan, hold Lagos in complete awe and a tinge of heartbreak when contemplating the past and present day Nigeria at the on-going outdoor exhibition by Modern Art Film Archive. Yinka Olatunbosun reports.
For years, western media had been accused of a condescending representation of Africa. It was common to see visuals of a scrawny-looking African child to tell the story of starvation in Africa or an aerial view of rusty-roofing sheets in shanties to depict communities in Africa. There were only but a few photographers of the colonial and early post-colonial period who told the story of royalty, eclectic cultural life with particular attention to the architectural beauty of Northern Nigeria, now turned terror zones. One of them was the German photographer, Nina Fischer-Stephan.
The Founder, Modern Art Film Archiv, Mareike Palmeira introduced the Lagos audience to Fischer-Stephan’s body of works tucked away as archival materials. Anyone who had experienced or heard about the peace that existed in Northern Nigeria would be heartbroken at the current state of affairs. Still, the exhibition titled ‘The Respectful Gaze’ at the Tinubu Square (formerly known as Independence Square) in Lagos allows the viewer to reminisce on the good memories of a beloved nation from the perspective of Fischer-Stephan whose body of work on Nigeria had not been accessible for years. What she chose to capture and the story told through her lens conveyed admiration and respect for African culture.
The programme note at the exhibition opening on July 1st gave a brief account into the life and times of this iconic photographer. Fischer-Stephan was born in Munich in 1922 but travelled to Africa in 1959 and was enthralled by what she saw. She and her husband decided to relocate to Nigeria and for 11 years, they lived in Ibadan. Her husband, Klaus Stephan was BR’s Special Correspondent in Nigeria and she travelled with him, taking pictures and documenting the history and art and culture in West Africa.
Some of her photographs, stretched out in the form of seventy-four printed 2x2m fabric tarpaulins around Tinubu Square, were captured in Maiduguri, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Zaria and Sokoto showcasing royal palaces, mosques, the alluring masterpieces of classical Hausa architecture and an encounter with the Emir of Katsina, Alhaji Sir Usman Nagogo. A prominent feature at the exhibition, perhaps, is The Gobarau Minaret – probably dating from the 15th century. The 50 feet-tall minaret, a relic of the Gobarau mosque is an early example of Muslim architecture. According to the curators, the Gobarau mosque was turned into a University, which is believed to have been affiliated to the Sankore University in Timbuktu. It was gathered that many Islamic scholars from Timbuktu had visited Katsina and taught Islamic education at the mosque.
Damola Adebowale, a cultural activist, archivist and founder, ASIRI Magazine shared the history perspective to the site of the exhibition during his presentation at the Freedom Park, Lagos. He revealed that the Tinubu Square used to be occupied by a customary court and before its demolition, the court was surrounded by Brazilian and Cuban architecture that dominated the look of Lagos Island in the 1930s and 40s.
“You stir people’s emotions when you put up certain images,’’ he said. “I displayed one of the pictures here online and someone asked if he could ‘like’ the picture twice because it is important to our continuous storytelling. This installation should not be a one-off project.
“If you don’t tell your story and then correct your narrative, you’ll be in a place where you won’t be able to defend yourself or your identity.’’
With the duo of Gisela Kayser and Akinbode Akinbiyi as curators, the on-going outdoor exhibition in Lagos which ends on August 14 is a concentrated take on Nigeria in the early 60s and a peek into Nigeria’s fascinating cultural history. The project which was initiated by Christine Matzke from the University of Bayreuth is supported by Goethe Institut, Lagos, Iwalewa Haus, Auswartiges Amt and Lagos Photo Festival.