Medina Dugger on Rewriting Narratives and Reclaiming Spaces
Medina Dugger is an art photographer from California, based in Lagos since 2011. She studied at Spéos Photographic Institute in Paris, France. Following four years as a project coordinator/co-curator for the African Artists’ Foundation and LagosPhoto Festival, Dugger turned her full attention to photography. Through collage and photography, her work seeks to bypass the singular storylines common to Nigeria and Africa, instead focusing on themes both contemporary and timeless, including acculturation, ethnocentrism, cultural homogeneity, globalisation, identity, tradition, modernity, imagination, and the female form and style. Her work challenges Western preconceptions of race, colour, and “otherness.”
Dugger’s photographic work has been featured in Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine, Something We Africans Got, CNN Africa, De Volkskrant, Dazed, Refinery 29, Design Indaba, Marie Claire SA, Konbini, Infringe, Heaps Magazine, De Standaard, and Ours Magazine, among others. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses moving to Nigeria, rewriting narratives, and the reclamation of spaces in her work.
Prior to studying photography, you earned a bachelor’s in nursing from California State University, Fresno. When did you first take an interest in a camera?
My grandmother bought me a photography book for my eighth birthday that really affected me. Looking back, that was the first hook. I took a darkroom photography class my second year in college and have not stopped shooting since then, despite practicing as a nurse for some years.
You were born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and studied in France at Spéos Photography Institute. Since 2011, you have lived and worked in Lagos, following a four-year stint as project coordinator and co-curator for the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF) and LagosPhoto Festival, respectively. What informed your decision to move to Nigeria, and how has your personal experience at AAF, LagosPhoto, and moving between different cultures across three continents influenced your photography practice?
I made the decision to move to Lagos after I was invited by a Lagosian friend I met while studying in Paris. She helped co-found LagosPhoto Festival. I came out to help organise and co-curate the 2011 editions and to work for AAF, after which I just never moved back home. Working for LagosPhoto and AAF and living in Nigeria have massively influenced my practice. Prior to living in Lagos, I enjoyed street photography and shooting in more of an intuitive, impromptu method (in the style of ‘Fun House’), which served my personal interest and fascination with the medium of photography itself. I still enjoy this approach, but I’m now more interested in concepts and contributing to a more expansive, uplifting narrative of Nigeria and Africa—a country and continent I was largely ignorant of prior to moving here. While it is untrue, there’s this feeling in the U.S. and Europe that “everything’s been done before” in photography. There is certainly an over-representation of these places and people in our global visual culture, so I find creating and discovering new work by Nigerian and African creatives and photographers to be much more interesting.
Your work challenges Western preconceptions of race and colour and perceptions of “otherness.” How do you reconcile your Western identity with your desire to create new and more complex narratives about the African continent?
Being from the West, and now living in Nigeria for nearly a decade, I understand how the country is often typecast in mainstream media. There is a dramatically disproportionate emphasis on negative and fantastical stories in our visual and news mediums in general. Africa and Nigeria are often diminished to limiting storylines of corruption, poverty, and crisis. This representation is demoralising and offensive to its citizens. It is also irresponsible and leaves a massive gap in representative content and understanding. Creating work that contributes to this wider dialogue interests me.
As I come from a very different culture from the one I live in now, I approach photographing a subject involving a different identity and faith with great respect, responsibility, openness, and consideration. I research before starting a series and often involve the subjects in decision making when it comes to how they are represented, so the process and representation is collaborative and not only my gaze. I also work in collaboration with other Nigerian creatives. Despite these practices, I am aware that my perspective and identity ultimately remain linked to the West. While I do my best to leave behind ethnocentric preconceptions, my perspective and person are Western-originated—that is not something I try to hide or deny. I provide a unique perspective, being myself familiar with both the misrepresentation and the reality here in Lagos.
To change the conversations requires many voices, especially those from the country and continent. Luckily, there is a massive body of talented Nigerian and African artists and creatives contributing to this counter chorus, who are being provided more platforms—or, in many cases, building platforms themselves. Times and dialogues are changing, and I feel grateful to be here at this moment in time. I believe creative disciplines are leading the change in this dialogue.
In a collaboration with Francois Beaurain, your photographs from the ‘Chroma’ series were transformed into moving images. What were your intentions, and does this dynamism allude to the evolution of Nigerian hairstyles over time?
Chromatin is the animated variation of ‘Chroma: An Ode to Ojeikere.’ Chromatin features geometrical and fractal constructions made from Nigerian hair designs, which are geometrical and fractal constructs in and of themselves. Chromatin offers a deeper insight into the geometry behind African hairstyles, highlighting the importance of this practice specific to Africa and the diaspora. Recent scientific research has shown that fractals used to be at the heart of African design and art. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, African societies developed recursive patterns (with smaller parts mirroring larger parts), which informed the layout of African villages, hairdos, and patterns in African art. These fractals can be found from ancient Egypt to Sub-Saharan Africa at large but were completely ignored by the West, which only conceptualised fractals towards the end of the 20th century. The fact that Europeans were unable to understand the subtleties of fractals underscores a limiting, ethnocentric perspective, which undoubtedly contributed to their assessment of African art and societies as primitive, when, on this specific point of art and mathematics, the Western world was (at least) many centuries behind. Braiding is one of the contemporary cultural practice where fractals can still be found in Africa. African hair designs are among the last remnants of an ancient African cultural pillar that has been almost completely annihilated by centuries of colonisation and cultural domination.
With Chromatin, we were not only highlighting the geometrical patterns in African hairdos but also re-envisioning fractals in contemporary African art. In biology, chromatin designates the macromolecule in which DNA is packed, and it is known to adopt complex and repetitive geometry. This macromolecule’s name comes from the ancient Greek word “chroma” (“colour”), because of its ability to fix dyes.
Conceived as an ode to iconic Nigerian photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, ‘Chroma’ celebrates both traditional and contemporary Nigerian techniques of hairstyling by re-contextualising Ojeikere’s documentary output while highlighting current and imagined hairstyles. What social impact do you hope to achieve with this project, and how relevant is it today to young Nigerian women who favour wigs and straighten their hair?
I think there is a risk of homogenisation of style today, due in part to fashion magazines and the influence of social media, which has undoubtedly connected more people than ever. While every man and woman has the right to style their hair in the manner they choose, and connectedness can contribute to greater understanding and inspiration, I think it’s important that cultural practices and traditions not be forsaken in the process.
I decided to shoot the series after a discussion with Wunika Mukan, who suggested that revisiting Ojeikere’s work in colour could be interesting. I instantly envisioned making use of the unconventional hair threads and weaves now available in local markets. The project is relevant to the extent that it incorporates traditional practices (using a contemporary medium) that are a unique part of the country’s history. In our increasingly connected world, cultural styles and expressions risk appropriation, dilution, and abandonment. This underscores the importance of Ojeikere’s work and of preserving these practices and history.
You’ve achieved much critical success with your series ‘Enshroud’, which borrows aesthetically from works by the likes of Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita, and the much younger Hassan Hajjaj ㄧall from Francophone Africa. What differences do you see between your presentation of the hijab as an element of liberation (in response to its negative perception by the West as a means of suppression) and the general attitude of women who wear it in Nigeria and across northern Africa?
My own perceptions on the hijab prior to living in a country with a large Muslim population were very different than they are now. As I learned before shooting this series, the veil has a long and complex history that predates Islam. Many see the hijab as a symbol of oppression alone, which is a limited view. Today many women choose to veil for privacy and to honour their cultural and religious traditions. The garment has also come to symbolise a position against Islamophobia. My presentation focused on the hijab in a style/design sense and in the joyful spirit embodied by the women I’ve met here in Lagos who wear them. A woman in hijab may be oppressed; this reality exists and must be combatted. A woman in hijab may also be free and a feminist.
What informs your selection of props (including backdrops) and of models and their clothingㄧa compelling personal story or some shared history?
In the case of ‘Chroma’ and ‘Enshroud’, colour and design played the primary factor in determining the backdrops and clothing. I selected clothing by local designers in many cases, in order to summon the aesthetic of dress in Lagos. I also have a fondness for two-dimensionality lately, which these particular backdrops fulfilled. ‘Enshroud’ was achieved via digital collage. I photographed the mats separately and then layered images of the women on top of them. The models are a group of women, some models, whom I’ve worked with for over five years now.
Your series ‘Fun House’ engages abandoned and uncompleted buildings in Lagos. What role do you think these seeming derelict spaces play in such a modern city?
These spaces can be looked at from many different perspectives, depending on the person and state of mind. They may be seen as a landmark in a historical context. One may see them as a liability, a sign of misappropriation of power, funds, and a waste of usable space. In many cases, they serve an unintended purpose as a home to squatters and street merchants. When I see a building such as the behemoth vacant Federal Secretariat, I see a potential in the refurbishment (honouring the structure’s past and present) of future usable space, one which serves the public’s interest. However, in most cases, the skeleton of these structures are demolished. They are an unavoidable reminder of the importance of maintaining a space, for if left alone for long, the earth, when left to her devices, will do her own reclamation. There is also a lesson in the impermanent nature of man’s constructions—that the function and life within a space far outweigh the possession of it. We are amidst a quickly changing landscape, one that does not wait for the resolution of such derelict spaces but grows up around them. Perhaps one day they will wake up and join the party.
‘Couples Yoga’ is “a performance series photographed in Charleston, South Carolina, to address police brutality and reimagine an alternative outcome.” Are you planning a similar exercise in Nigeria, considering such similar occurrences abound?
I would certainly be very happy to repeat the performance in Lagos. I photographed a single Lagosian police officer on the rooftop of City Hall, but I’d enjoy photographing a couples’ series again here that explores the perspectives of the officer and the civilian, ending with the message “police is your friend.” Other seemingly contradictory pairings could be made: tribal, religious…a scene involving two drivers experiencing road rage ending peaceably.
Your work has strong visual elements achieved through your choice of textiles and colours. Please take us through your creative process, taking care to explain colour’s central purpose.
In Nigeria, we may see some mainstream styles and luxury brands, but there is a discernible difference in dress compared with the West. Style and image are hugely important here, for all levels of society. One sees textures, pattern combinations, colours, sequins, and fabrics that she could not dream of or see anywhere else in the world. My eye has caught design pairings dancing together that have stopped me in my tracks—a real splattering of patterning. That is Nigerian fashion: show-stopping. This is the primary inspiration for my choice of garments and colour palates. It’s a balance made from equal parts of harmony and tension.
What is the thinking behind your series ‘Chi’, does it also allude to the Chinese concept of the vital force essential to good health, or to the personal spirit that determines destiny, according to Igbo tradition?
Yes, the title was a reference both to the model’s name and to chi as the energy/life force inherent in all things.
The year 2017 was significant, with you winning first prize in the Open category of the Magnum Photography Award and winning the Lensculture Portrait Award Juror’s Pick at the Odessa/Batumi Photo Days Festival. Please tell us more about your entries and the impact this recognition has had on your career.
Those prizes were both in recognition of ‘Chroma: An Ode to J. D. Okhai Ojeikere.’ They made a significant impact on my career, providing new opportunities for exhibition and allowing the series to reach larger audiences. The most exciting milestone for me was the exhibition of ‘Chroma’ alongside Ojeikere’s ‘Hairstyles’ in Daoulas, France. His works were featured within an old abbey, and ‘Chroma’ was featured throughout the town. It was a dream I never knew I had until I saw all the works together, made possible by Guy Nardis.
In addition to your personal work, you undertake other projects, like fashion editorials and interior photography. Is there a connecting thread, and how do you react to purists who believe that an artist, as the moral compass of society, should not be commercially driven?
I object to extremism and view purists as extremists. I don’t condemn them or artists who are commercially driven. Ultimately, we must all face our front and define aesthetics, truth, and purpose on our own terms. Most artists negotiate with this balance often. My parents were purist artists at times, so I’ve already lived that experience—it was a bit too much excitement for me. Editorials and architectural photography help make my personal work possible. I prioritise stability to feel at peace when creating. Beyond my career, I prioritise self-care, spiritual well-being, and growth. I’m not interested in bankrupting myself or going hungry, no matter how productive that may make me in my personal work or how romantic the notion of a tortured, starving artist might be to others.
Whenever possible, I try to work my aesthetic into a commercial shoot, but I’m not overly precious about it. I can remove my ego from the equation and simply produce work for a purpose, as long as I don’t object to that purpose. I am selective with my commercial work, choosing jobs that resonate with me, whether through subject matter or personal associations with the client.
I don’t believe artists embody a moral superiority or have a duty to singularly fulfill of leading humanity on the right path. Not all artists are moral or interested in morality. That is not to say art is not one of our finest achievements, but as in all professions, people, including artists, fulfill their jobs for any number of reasons. We all hold within us a moral compass and the power and responsibility that comes with that. I view art primarily as a form (a magnificent one!) of communication. This does not minimise the power or influence of art, for communication is one of the most powerful tools on earth. In its purest expression, I suspect art may involve a heightened state of enlightenment—for the creator and the viewer.
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