At the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco
June 20, 2013 – September 29, 2013
By: Roula Seikaly
In 2009, comedian Chris Rock produced and hosted a movie entitled Good Hair, which considers the social and economic factors that inform how African American women style their hair. It’s a searingly funny and thoughtful examination of related issues including self-expression, identity, and the tension between remaining true to one’s cultural roots or conforming to meet unrealistic, and racially driven standards of beauty. I was reminded of the film, and how powerfully styles of outward comportment register as measures of change, when viewing Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday, now on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora through September 29th.
Sartorial Moments, curated by Olabisa Silva and Oyinda Fayeke, highlights the work of J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, a Nigerian photographer who has dedicated the balance of his 60-year career to photographing his fellow countrymen and women for the featured series Hairstyles. Ojeikere’s presence in, and importance to, the Nigerian art scene is centered primarily in the capital city Lagos and began in the mid-1960s when the artist joined the Nigerian Arts Council. Seven years after independence from British rule was achieved, in October of 1960, Ojeikere and other artists committed to moving their country beyond a colonialist mindset by exploring the points where European and broadly defined African cultural sensibilities collided and diverged. The result, as we see displayed at MoAD, represents a bridge between two eras in Nigeria’s national identity — not so much a “before and after” view but more an insightful look at what comes of the inevitable blending of native and foreign influences.
Ojeikere’s large format black and white compositions are mostly uniform, presenting his subjects from the back or in profile. This method highlights a variety of styles – braids, twists and curls coiled into complex sculptural forms – that he encountered gracing the heads of friends and strangers alike. The same style is not seen twice in any of the more than 50 photographs displayed. Audiences do not see the faces of his female subjects for the most part, but instead our eyes are drawn to the hairstyles that are as much an indicator of identity and individuality as their respective visages. When looking at these portraits, I was reminded of, among other images, early photographs taken of enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States and how starkly notions of person and non-personhood are conveyed throughout the history of photography.
Ojeikere’s interest in body, hair and fashion as sites of change extends to the gele, pronounced “gay lay,” the gravity-defying headdresses born of western Nigeria’s Yoruba culture. The photographer captured many of his subjects wearing geles in his Lagos studio, which he opened in 1975, and emphasis in the portraits is placed on the sculptural elements that render each wrap and the woman who wears it as unique. Historically, a gele was worn and perceived as the mark of a woman’s marital status, leaning to the right if she was married and to the left if she was single. The cloth used to create these complex creations was also an indicator of a woman’s social status, and whether or not she could afford the often-expensive materials that were imported from Europe and other distant points. In contemporary Nigerian and Diasporan societies, the gele is regarded as an accessory, and as an indicator that traditional styles of dress are often preferred over those of western society.
J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere turns his camera on Nigerian men as well, capturing stylistic evolution over a forty year period that unfolded beside the revolutionary changes of post colonial existence. While differences in men’s fashion and hairstyles were not as dramatic as those for women, what stands out about these portraits is that they bring the power of photography to bear on establishing one’s identity, which was and may still be difficult when most westerners regard African nations from a totalizing point of view rather than as separate societies invested with discreet qualities. Ojeikere’s portrait of a man wearing a dark ensemble of slacks, sweater, collared shirt, and tie locates the figure in the center of the composition, conveying both his stature and individuality within the studio environment.
On loan from the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Lagos, and offered as the second in the Curator’s Choice exhibitions series at MoAD, Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday beautifully captures what curator and scholar Dr. Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins relates as “unrecoverable moments” in Nigeria’s social and artistic history. In the end, these images demonstrate the importance of noting the small details, what we wear and why, and how that contributes to building both the future of oneself and a nation.