Growing populations are creating sprawling urban areas across Africa. A new video and photography exhibition in the Gund Gallery displays the effects of this massive expansion. The exhibition was guest curated by Associate Professor and Department Chair of Art and Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill Carol Magee.
Urban Cadence: Street Scenes from Lagos and Johannesburg tells the story of two cities riding the crest of the urban population wave in Africa, and features the work of nine award-winning contemporary African artists. The artists behind these photographs and videos act as urban ethnographers caught up in the metropolitan landscapes they seek to capture. Candid in their recognition of global stereotypes of African cities, these artists have produced a visual representation of the chaotic narrative of rapid development. Movement is critical to this narrative: on a national scale, on a countrywide scale and on the scale of a single city block. Within the roar of this noise, the artists of Urban Cadence put their fingers to the pulses of their cities.
An artery of traffic — human, animal and automobile — disappears into the distance of Akintunde Akinleye’s photograph Each Passing Day (2006). People are pressed together with huge, rusted trucks filled with goods for sale in the bustle of the crowd; the beach umbrellas of street vendors are interspersed throughout the brightly colored throng. On either side of the mass are muted, colored blocks of buildings, stretching into the hazy urban smog of the background. In the foreground, a lone man in profile takes a phone call on an empty pedestrian footbridge — he is one of the only individuals the viewer is able to locate.
In League of Gentlemen (2011), photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha does not show the movement of people within Lagos, but rather the movement of goods. The square black-and-white photograph shows a line-up of truncated mannequins clothed in the striped and checkered button-up shirts of the modern western workplace. Behind the mannequins, a help-wanted poster urgently advertises a marketing job; another poster, partly obscured by a mannequin’s shirttails, endorses a local politician. Closer investigation reveals that the wall to which the mannequins and posters are affixed is a sheet of weathered, corrugated steel. This piece, part of a series entitled Isolation, suggests the ubiquity of offhand commercial scenes like this in modern Lagos.
Jess Lane ’20, a Gund Gallery student associate, attended a talk delivered by Okpa-Iroha on Oct. 17, in which the artist discussed his candid photography of Lagosians. “Through the color and focus of [Okpa-Iroha’s] work, you can tell he’s engaged to the city,” Lane said. “He’s not acting like a bystander, taking photos without interaction; he lives with these people, he works with these people, and they’re not just subjects — they’re representatives of his community.”
In the photography of Kelechi Amadi-Obi, this engaged perspective comes to the forefront. Captain Rugged 8 (2013) is part of a series of photographs of Lagosian musician Keziah Jones dressed as the titular superhero, the protagonist of Jones’ recent graphic novel and album. Captain Rugged stands atop the flat roof of a seaside building, his arms spread as though he is about to either take flight or launch into a sequence of martial action. An ornately embroidered cape billows from his neck, contrasting his otherwise simple outfit of jeans and skate sneakers. Behind the superhero, the city of Lagos opens up against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, and the viewer feels that Captain Rugged is both a defender of his city and its ambassador.
Vahni Kurra ’20, another Gund Gallery student associate, was interested in the way that the Captain Rugged series contrasted with the rest of Urban Cadence. “Amadi-Obi’s depictions of Captain Rugged are really interesting because a lot of the photographs in the gallery right now are grounded in reality, they’re simple street scenes that most people in Lagos look at every day,” Kurra said. “Captain Rugged is this imaginary soul and force of Lagos that is depicted, and it’s interesting to me that photographs don’t have to be grounded in reality to make a statement.”
Urban Cadence: Street Scenes from Lagos and Johannesburg opened on Oct. 13 and will run until March 4, 2018 in the Gund Gallery.