Kadara Enyeasi: City Portraits
Writing about Paul Strand’s photographs, John Berger talks about a frontality in the artist’s images: “The subject is looking at us; we are looking at the subject.” Berger considers the deliberate placement of Strand’s camera as a catalyst for turning his subjects into narrators: he “[presents] himself to his subject in such a way that the subject is willing to say: ‘I am as you see me.’”
This frontality, the deliberate positioning of the artist’s camera—not for documentation but for transformation—is explored in Kadara Enyeasi’s ‘Have You Ever Wondered?’ series presented in City Chronicles, a joint exhibition with Logor Olumuyiwa at the African Artists Foundation, Lagos. While Enyeasi’s oeuvre explores photographs of the human body, landscapes, objects, and buildings, the majority of the works on view (and considered in this essay) are of buildings explored in fractions rather than in their entirety. This exploration of detail, a part in lieu of the whole, presents picturesque scenes without appearing as a mishmash of tired clichés.
The images in the series come from four different countries—Nigeria, Benin, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—but they could be from anywhere in the world. The buildings represented hardly give a clue about their physical context, seeming almost self-existent—the subject as narrator. What can these buildings tell us about the concept of a city? The exhibition’s title, City Chronicles, can be defined most simply as a record of a city (or, in this case, cities). Based on that definition, these buildings seem to stake a claim to an existence independent of human presence and activity. They perform the sacred act of archiving and divulging the individual stories of which a city is made to the patient viewer. The artist’s minimalist photography opens up the possibility that if we look long enough, we might see not just a mere representation of angles and shapes, but a distinct history of individuality and a narrative waiting to be explored. Enyeasi says, “My preoccupation with buildings was to transform them into sculptures; I was not looking at them as dead things, but as breathing things.”
Contrary to the typical notion of cities as frenzied and chaotic motion, Enyeasi’s photographs present a stillness that borders on desolation, not in a dystopian sense, but from the absence of perceived movement—most of the buildings are shown with little to no human presence. He, in a way, explores the chaotic role of the human body in public spaces. The human body is foreign here—unwelcome even—in a bid to sustain the illusion of independent existence, of patterns and regularity, of anthropomorphic qualities in the buildings.
In one of the photographs, a red building seems to open up into a cluster of grey buildings in the background. The red building functions as a doorway into the unknown space beyond. It is flanked at an angle to the right by a tall, imposing grey structure with several windows, reminiscent of office spaces in modern-day cities. A similarly grey but unidentifiable structure flanks the red building to the left. This building is peculiar in its functionality, resembling living/working quarters complete with doorways, windows, and balconies, yet only serving the performative qualities of a threshold, a liminal space, something that is, yet is not, lacking the characteristic of modern-day buildings as closed off private spaces.
A neon sign with the word “OPEN” is displayed at the top of the building, almost as an invitation, a gateway to the unknown. Here, the photographer has presented an image that makes the viewer desire to turn it around, to change position, in order to see what one imagines must be seen but is not shown. What does the building open up to? Michel Foucault discussed this phenomenon in his 1971 lecture in Tunis on the paintings of Édouard Manet, describing it as recto verso, “the surface with its two faces ”—what is and yet is not.
Kadara Enyeasi’s images evoke in the viewer a sense of openness and vastness that is antithetical to the reality of modern cities. This is perhaps best seen in his photograph of a concrete building overlooking the sea. The building, extending from the top right and covering the bottom half of the picture plane, is shown as fragmented parts arranged in verticals and horizontals meeting at a 90-degree angle, with the vertical structure casting a shadow over the horizontal. A view of a vivid blue sea and sky occupies a small area at the top of the image. The viewer is positioned looking out to the distance where a well-defined horizon separates a calm sea from a cloudless sky. There is a certain wistfulness about the image that creates a yearning for the unknown, the adventure just over the horizon—what is and yet is not.
In another image, a white, cube-shaped building stands in a grass field, nestled against a stretch of dirt brown mountain with a patch of deep blue sky just visible at the top of the picture plane. A small house is partially visible in the distance, hidden by trees and grasses. A section of tarred road extends diagonally along the lower edge of the image. With a garage door and a concrete ramp, the building resembles a garage or storage. Shadow is cast onto parts of the building and the lawn in front by an object outside the image, raising questions of the unknown and hidden. This play of light and shadow in the images alludes to the constant presence of the unseen and unknown typical in cities, even in the most open areas—the uncertainty that haunts new, unfamiliar spaces.
There is a Lagosian term referenced in the exhibition text: “Go Slow,” “which alludes to a frustrating dead stop when motion is impending.” Enyeasi’s photographs occupy the transitional space between one fleeting movement and the next, slowing down movement almost to the point of elimination, to enable the viewer to perceive the city’s “unnoticed vestiges and aesthetic underbelly.” The photographs can also be seen as a protest against the impersonality of city spaces: its empty spaces imposing what Berger refers to as an “impersonal ahistoricity.”
Kadara Enyeasi’s portrait of city buildings re-examines space in itself, as opposed to thinking about how its functional qualities serve human needs. In Enyeasi’s presentation, the city is an independent, self-conceived space both welcoming and rejecting human presence.
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