African Stories Reclaimed in Alabi-Hundeyin II’s Not A Country

Yinka Olatunbosun

With a renewed consciousness to reclaim the western gaze on the black body, as well as the cultural heritage of the African, a documentary photographer and documentary filmmaker, Tunde Alabi Hundeyin II held the audience spellbound with his recent photography exhibition ‘Not A Country.’

A showstopper, the exhibition was a part of the Brighton Fringe, the largest arts festival in England. For a visual storyteller like Alabi-Hundeyin II, perspective is more than just a concept in art. It is about authenticity as well as the preservation of humanity. When he holds his camera and prepares to take a shot, he bears a responsibility to tell the story of everyday people from a place of strength, not weakness.

Though he is currently a doctoral scholar in Creative and Critical Practice at the University of Sussex, UK, Alabi-Hundeyin II’s previous experience in documenting humanitarian projects has served as an eye-opener into the way Africans are portrayed, understood and how their stories are told across generations. As a photographer for UNICEF, he worked on images for the organisation’s Ending Violence Against Children campaign.

Often, the vulnerability of Africans captured through the lens resounds globally. Though African arts is gaining traction in cultural spaces across continents, Africa has always been viewed from a condescending lens. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and ravaging illness are regular tropes of images about Africa. Alabi-Hundeyin II is consciously challenging these stereotypes.

“Stereotypes themselves may not be the truth,’’ he argues. “They are ideological leanings, beliefs, creatively curated perspectives about a thing, a person or place. They’re usually created by misinformed people with poor assumptions about their object of stereotype. On the flip side, a stereotype may be truthful, but a single story of a multifaceted phenomenon is equally injurious because of its element of truth, which is but a version of a bigger picture.’

In his short documentary film ‘Towards Utopia,’ Alabi-Hundeyin II challenges the spectacle of pity, body commodification and consumerism that characterise the depiction of the African from the white supremacist’s gaze. In retrospect, the photographer recalls how his work at an IDP camp changed his perspective of visual documentation.

“I don’t know if what I did in Durumi Camp has been successful, if it managed to escape the stereotypes that I tried to work against. My images aimed at empowerment, tried to show humanity, agency, resilience and give dignity without disguising the hardship that is undeniable.”

Alabi-Hundeyin II grew up with cameras. His father, Tunde Alabi-Hundeyin (also with the same name), a renowned filmmaker of the Dudu Productions fame, weaned him on film production. When he was two years old, he was on the set of Ireke Onibudo, a feature film his father directed on 35mm celluloid in the 1980s. Young Alabi-Hundeyin II grew from being in the live studio audience of a TV show to watching his dad’s crew shoot the annual Lekki Sunsplash.  Many music video shots in the 1990s are credited to Alabi-Hundeyin II’s father. But he wouldn’t live in his father’s shadow.

After several years of work in the telecommunications industry, he decided to pursue documentary photography on a freelance basis. Five years later, he moved to England for a master’s degree and is now almost completing a doctorate degree in Creative and Critical Practice. But if anything qualified him for the title – a chip of the old block, then it would be his preoccupation with the representation of the black body.

“My flair gravitates towards Black identity, culture, heritage and the media representation of the Black body – this is my core message though I work on other briefs as well.”

His latest show at Brighton Fringe is in itself a cultural education to correct the misconception of Africa being popularly misconstrued as a country in western social norms. By exploring a variety of attires and textiles worn by Africans, the project interrogates the black body within the British landscape. In the body of work, Alabi-Hundeyin II explores the fabric as an element of shared identity. His photography series ‘Not A Country’ raises conversations around colonialism, capitalism, religion and globalisation.

Alabi-Hundeyin II sought models among migrant postgraduate students whilst scrutinising their material culture as intricate ethnic symbolisms that reflect on the history and culture of African people. Every piece tells a story: the aso-oke robe from Nigeria is a ceremonial wear that has become a cross-generational cultural symbol. The Siziba outfit from Zambia is a reflection of the Scottish colonial influence on Zambian culture. Habesha Kemis is a shred of a pristine culture of Ethiopia, which is the only uncolonised African country. With the Maasai Shuka, the photographer recreates the African pride in the cultures of Kenya and Tanzania. Through the attire, the artist captures the rich wildlife of the subregion and the lifestyle of the Maasai – a visual reminder of the culture of the traditional households. Perhaps, one of the most fascinating images at the show is that of the Igbo ethnic group where the model wears the ceremonial wrapper, George, accessorised with coral beads known as echi ocha, a red suede cap called okpu onye Nze and the horsetail commonly known as odu iyiya.

Not A Country has inevitably demonstrated how African attires are essential access points into the African spirit. The flamboyance as well as simplicity of the subjects in the images would remain cultural indicators of the prevalent temperament of a people. The body of work may also be seen not just as an exhibit of cultural diversity and identity but a conscious effort of an artist to document cultural transplant on the British soil. Without manipulating the background, the images appear to be regular pictures especially when the eyes long to see beyond what the camera sees. Not A Country is a testament to the African pride in the land of the coloniser, nearly obliterating memories of an imperial past.

For Alabi-Hundeyin II, narratives are powerful. Stories, in whatever form – visual, verbal or written, help to shape narratives.

“An Afro proverb says “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” This underscores the importance of self-representation. Africa needs to speak for itself. It must have a viable representation at the table. Mediated voice has its problems of misrepresentation, subjectivity or outright falsehood. We’ve been victims of all of these. We owe it to ourselves to have the agency to tell stories of our own lives, our heroics, our challenges in a dignifying way, not necessarily deodorising them. We also need to be trained in the art of storytelling and find platforms to distribute these stories.”

One of his earlier works include the television documentary titled, ‘Lagos Megacity- Suffocated and Raped’ a TV documentary for Lagos state government released in 2005. He was also one of the finalists at the Life in My City Arts Festival Enugu in 2012, with exhibits showcased at Addis Foto Fest same year.

In 2022, his documentary film entitled ‘100 Days in Rwanda’ was an official selection at the iRep International/Africa World Documentary Film Festival. His latest flick, a short documentary film, ‘Towards Utopia’ was the official selection at the Abuja International Film Festival in 2022.

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