This interview forms part of Mariella Franzoni’s LagosPhoto Festival feature in the latest issue of ART AFRICA, which will be on shelves the 4th of December. To read the article to get yourself excited for the latest edition of ART AFRICA, click here.
Having known Azu Nwagbogu for two years, I asked him a few questions about LagosPhoto and his position as a curator of photography, practicing both locally and internationally. In few years, from a cultural entrepreneur and art passionate, he has turned into a jet-set flaneur curator, much esteemed by artists and colleagues of the international photography art world, enthralled by his rare politeness, elegance and style when he lands in Lagos, Cape Town, Amsterdam, London, Milan, Paris, Barcelona or New York.
Mariella Franzoni: How did your journey into curating and your passion for photography start?
Azu Nwagbogu: It’s hard for me to really pin it down, and I have tried. What I can say with some certainty is that my passion is not really about photography per se, it’s got more to do with a general interest in the way stories are told and emotion, energy, world view are transmitted through images, the subtle nuisances within each story. If I go to see a movie I am much less interested in how the story ends. What intrigues and interests me is the way it’s told. Curating, is something rather intuitive from everything else that interests me. If you care about something you nurture it and you want to present it in a way that inspires and informs others.
From your experience as a curator and a person that is very much esteemed by artists and colleagues both in Africa and globally, what do you think should be the qualities of a leader in the art industry?
Thank you for your kind words. The qualities that I admire the most are honesty and
curiosity. As a leader it is important to take the time to form opinions based on facts and genuine interest. This enables you to be courageous and fearless. This never happens in abstraction, these are qualities that come with much preparation and learning, and there is no learning without a sense of curiosity. I also do not trust anyone in the art world without a sense of style. I think it’s important to be yourself and allow your individuality shine through and grow all you do. A lot of artists/curators are too busy trying to wear opinions like fashion and be the next cue in any famous name but unaware that the world is waiting for the unique individual. The chain becomes tiresome. It is also very important to be adaptable. A leader listens to those around him and surrounds himself with people with qualities that he admirers or is a little deficient in.
Who have been your mentors and examples in your career?
I look up to my parents and my siblings. I have learnt the most from all of my siblings and parents but no one more than my elder brother Chike, who really showed me the limitless possibilities in art. I am also greatly inspired by literature. The works of Achebe, Tolstoy, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, AA Gill, are my heroes . Sadly, all deceased.
You established LagosPhoto in 2010, and you are about to inaugurate its 8th edition. How did the art scene in Lagos change along these years? And what kind of challenges did you have to overcome?
It’s been very much about building a community and for that we are grateful. One of the problems of post-colonial Africa is that it creates unhealthy fractions within communities that compete rather than collaborate. Through common interest, LagosPhoto has achieved some success in creating communities that believe in Africa and believe that images and visual story telling allow us imagine and create a better world for our people. There really was nothing for me at the time that served as a template. Everything was new and photography was very under appreciated at the time.
The art scene in Lagos was really dominated mostly by direct commercial interest, I.E, galleries that really catered to the needs of expatriates and those looking to decorate their homes . Nimbus Art Centre at the time was looking for a new space and Nimbus’ influence in the contemporary scene was massively missed. Nimbus was the first to show a really important exhibition of George Osodi, a great photographer who would later come on board and be very supportive of LagosPhoto. George is a generous talent and contributed his experience and time giving workshops and sharing his wealth of knowledge with the young aspiring photographers who participated at the early editions of the festival.
Again, we never thought about LagosPhoto as being limited to photography. Our ideas were always to embrace all the possibilities within contemporary visual culture and story telling within lens based media. In the first edition of the festival we showed the breakthrough and seminal work of Renzo Martens, Enjoy Poverty Episode 3, a work I consider to be the most powerful contemporary art piece in relation to Africa – the Guernica of our time.
The usual challenges around organizing a major art festival anywhere in the world is our reality. Space and funding being the two most important but we’ve never lacked talent and passion and a willingness to create something special. We have been blessed to have had major support from the very beginning with Eko Hotels and Etisalat who both really backed us from the start. Now it is a new beginning and we are in discussions with other partners.
One quite strong aim in your curatorial work within Lagos Photo and African Artists Foundation seems to be challenging, through contemporary photography, the neo-colonial production of stereotypes about Africa. This is something that one can achieve not only by giving young practitioners some sort of visibility, but also by guiding them in the exploration of their interests and creativity. In this sense, what do you think is your role and mission as a curator from and working in the continent?
For me, it’s always about the multiplicity of stories and never one story. I don’t believe you challenge stereotypes successfully by introducing a new stereotype. So, we are not about showing the other extremes to challenge the over representation of disease, displacement, destitution…these stories are valid too but how they are narrated must be more sophisticated and substantive. Gallerists and collectors for example would love the work of Pieter Hugo, he makes beautiful images but they tell us nothing about the situation or the subjects and in a sense the images are exploitative. Is it bad that he is able to earn a living making beautiful work? Of course not. I am not a moralist. However, I only care for work made with more depth and curiosity. In a sense, one of my approaches to curatoring is to allow more voices to be heard and to encourage talented artists to find ways to show unique perspectives so we are seduced into rethinking our received knowledge.
You would agree with me that we live in a time in which we are overwhelmed by the production of images and sometimes it is difficult to navigate in this sea. We constantly need to educate ourselves in our way of looking at images and, within the art world, it seems to me important that behind the production of images there should be a certain education, sensibility and a critical approach. If the curator has some “educational” agency within the art world, how should he/she use it to improve critical thinking, sensibility and research amongst art practitioners?
It’s really simple but any the same time rather complex because people generally tend to copy and borrow ideas rather than shape, questions and formulate theirs. I refer to artists, curators and art practitioners. There is an obsession with the sublimating art world fame. You will often hear “such and such is really famous” rather than, “there’s a great catalogue of ideas in her collection”. So, in a sense the art world creates this vortex where everyone is chasing their own tails. My approach is to question everything and constantly challenge myself. Never do things because it is the way it has always been done but rather the way it assess that it should be.
I consider that the lack of critical thinking is more common in an over professionalized setting: they sound like robots and all the exhibitions look the same. Sometimes during studio visits with an artist in her studio, the gallerist would get involved and want to make the artist sound more clever and they offer you anodyne and platitudes when you’re desperate to get to the core of the motivation behind some of the work. Thankfully, this is a problem I have learned to be assertive about and sometimes by throwing curve balls; scheduling visits outside official work hours when the gallerist is home with the family. One would hope for an exploration of collaboration between institutions that might nurture and generate transversal connections for future art production and research rather than the current status quo that is based on events, biennials and so forth. I mean less even based practice and more long term collaboration, research and close mentorship with the artists.
In this sense, what would you suggest to the young generation of practitioners who is approaching photography for the first time?
Research. Study and learn more about your interests and interrogate those interests. I always say, never hide your past, let your previous experience regardless of background inform your practice as a photographer or artist. It is a perspective that is unique and we need more of that singularity in artistic expression.
In the past, you also invited or supported non-African photographers that had photographic interests in the continent. I am thinking, for example, of Lorenzo Vetturi and Patrick Willocq, respectively from Italy and France, whose recent photographic projects gained a certain attention. And we all know that, unfortunately, the magic potion that terminates completely with the neo-colonial gaze has not been invented yet. So, how do you deal with these issues?
The first thing is to understand when we invite an artist we do not necessarily validate them thereby…There is a validation in the sense that there is a quality and relevance within the work which we recognize and appreciate but it is not necessarily without a colonial gaze.
The two artists you mention, are almost polar opposites. Both massively talented. Lorenzo is a genius whose approach to making work in a new environment is extremely genuine. He retains his foreign gaze but does not seek to tell you anything about his subjects or his story with any certainty — he merely reflects. Patrick, on the other hand, feels completely embedded in the communities where he has worked (mostly in Africa). He takes his time and interacts and by the time he’s left he feels he is a part of that group and has a high empathy level. The work he makes is with more assurance and therefore always problematic.
My view is that the colonial influence, to put it simply, is inextricably linked to the very DNA of our metabolism all over Africa and to varying degrees. West Africans and Nigerians , in particular, self- congratulate for being more assertive culturally and claim an attitude that appears less awash with these influences but its manifestation while obscure in obvious ways is visible in other ways.
How do you recognize the “good intentions” of a photographer and how do you guide them away from stereotyping mechanisms, so that their work reflects their honesty?
It is again, about questioning yourself as an artist or a photographer and your humility in trying to take the time to understand.
Do your input and advice always work?
In varying degrees. It’s not just with photographers, writers too find that the sensational is more interesting so we try to make them understand that there is more durability with nuisance and sensation is far more transient.
In LagosPhoto, you have always worked with a team of curators, including Maria Pia Bernardoni, Christina De Middel and Stanley Greene. While you recently have been invited by Marie-Ann Yems to be part of the curatorial team of Les Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, in Bamako. There is, in general, a trend toward collaborative practice in curatorship, and, in my opinion it is a positive shift, even if we all know that it is not easy to work democratically in a group of pairs that share the same agency. It requires time, patience, empathy… What do you think are the pros and cons of collaborative work in curatorship?
I don’t see any cons when there is a true spirit of collaboration. If there is a willingness to share ideas and egos are in check we can always build a more rounded story. But with collaboration there has to be firm leadership; one that is assertive and is responsible. You can’t say: “well, I was not involved in that aspect of the curation”.
Lorena Ros, DECEMBER 2003: Young nigerian trafficked woman working during the night in December 2002 in La Casa de Campo in Madrid,Spain. Thousands of Nigerian women are trafficked into Western Europe every year. They are forced to work in the sex industry to pay back debts of up to $50,000. Having entered Western Europe illegally, the women are pushed to the periphery of society. 95% of the trafficked Nigerian women come from Edo State (Southern Nigeria) where the traffickers have set up their networks. Courtesy of the artist.
The curatorial concept of this 8th Edition of LagosPhoto, “Regimes of Truth”, is particularly relevant in today’s global information society. The tension between George Orwell’s fear of censorship, and Aldous Huxley’s warning that truth will be drowned by a sea of irrelevant information, is reflected in the tension between totalitarian dynamics and neoliberalism that we experience on the continent and globally. What is your position and opinion in regards to these socio-political issues?
Isn’t it remarkable how much we learn from fiction and literature in particular and it is likely the most important influence in my own curatorial approach. My position is really less important but I’m more interested in the way artists respond to this global flux that is really accelerated by an anxiety generated by overstimulation, misinformation and overexposure to images and all of these somehow drown the truth. We hope for a world where facts provide the props to build our truths but we live in a world where to speak of facts is to be elitist and the truth is now the most radical position possible amongst a plethora of realities. Elon musk says we are probably living in a computer simulation –thankfully I’ve unplugged myself from that matrix.
And how do contemporary art and photography, as well as curated events like Lagos-Photo, can turn into the context from which to reflect on these tensions?
It’s a great question. Photography is actually inextricably linked with the principles of science IE capture, study, observation, documentation and research and allows us investigate these relationships and explore the tensions inherent within these processes . It was the theoretical physicist, Laurence Kraus who said “every time we have built new eyes to observe the universe our understanding of ourselves is forever altered” or something like that. Photography as a medium is always evolving with our levels of visual exposure and literacy. While LagosPhoto has always adapted and indeed one of our keys principles is to anticipate these various positions, possibilities and other ways of seeing.
Chinua Achebe is one of the authors that inspired the curatorial reflection of the festival this year, and I think one of his most interesting and pertinent teaching is the idea that the artists should be able to show truth through fiction, a fiction that is beneficent because it never forgets that it is a fiction. And he also celebrates the Igbo idea of being an artist, which means to be involved in society with humility, avoiding egocentric attitudes. Achebe was mostly referring to writers and the world of literature, while it seems that these principles are very far from the contemporary art industry with its culture of celebrity and its cult of the genius, where self-centered visibility is often the only way to grow as an artist or a curator. What can we still learn from Achebe’s teaching? Do you think collaborative practices and shared authorship could be a good starting point?
Impressive! I could not have said it better myself. By sharing and collaborating we immerse ourselves in a learning situation that Achebe proposes and is the very nature of the individualistic Igbo culture. In Igbo culture everyone made art but certain individuals made it to a higher quality. They were celebrated but this did not prevent others from contributing and participating. We can all tell stories and inspire a better Africa but we must come to the table with humility to share and learn. In Igbo we say: Oburo ife-niine ka anagwa mmadu. Which loosely translates as: you have to learn certain truths by yourself. Also, In Igbo tradition, the elderly are never expected to tell lies. They should never fear anything anymore being advanced in age and experience and must speak the truth to set an example and instruct the youths. The Young are therefore encouraged to gain status and knowledge so they can speak the truth freely. I like that arch where there’s a relationship between phenomenology and social condition.
What can we anticipate from this edition of LagosPhoto festival?
With this edition we are aiming for a more experiential approach. There is more emphasis on the interaction with images. A lot of the exhibitions will force the viewer to engage in an active way. We also have an expanded curatorial team; it is diverse and mixed with young and more established minds coming together to interpret various positions represented within the exhibitions. The talks programs and outdoor exhibitions will be also very exciting. This experience cannot be explained with words. In true LagosPhoto fashion, Who no go know go know!
This is my last question. LagosPhoto this year will commemorate 40 years from FESTAC 77, the art and culture jamboree that celebrated African and Black culture as well as Panafricanism in the aftermath of the decolonization. In your view, what does FESTAC 77 represent for Lagos and Africa?
The thing that evokes action the most is the lack of knowledge amongst the so called millennials about the two most remarkable sociopolitical events in Nigeria: FESTAC (40th anniversary) and the Biafra War (50 years of Nigeria’s Civil War). It is not really the fault of the young Africans that history is no longer taught in schools. The optimism of FESTAC was palpable and I actually believe that the sabotage of these pan African ideals is the reason for Africa’s constant “Africa Rising” label like when are we going to take off?
What does LagosPhoto recover from that experience and spirit?
We will see.
Should we expect a surprise?
Mariella Franzoni is a researcher, independent curator and advisor based in Barcelona (Spain) and Cape Town (South Africa). With an academic background in anthropology, art theory and cultural management, she is currently working on her PhD at the University Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona and is affiliated to the University of Western Cape.