Up Close with Okhai Ojeikere
by Ladun Ogidan
“Any monkey can use a digital camera, you press a button, you play. You don’t need proper skill to practice digital camera because you are not printing. You only take pictures so you are not as controlled.”
Photographer, ‘Okhai Ojeikere was born in 1930 in Ovbiomu-Emai, Edo State and is one of the most iconic figures in modern Nigerian art. Growing up in the village, Ojeikere attended school up to the primary 6 level before quitting, deciding instead to pursue his dream of being a “professional man”. He was then 19 years old and took on a tailoring apprenticeship with his uncle at Ibadan. However, this was short-lived as the death of his father forced him to move to Abakaliki to live with his older sister who was married to a policeman.
His early interest in photography was encouraged by a neighbour, Mr Albert Anieke, a retired photographer who advised him to acquire a personal camera and taught him basic operating skills and the rudiments of photography. Ojeikere thus began his journey into the world of photography at the age of twenty with a modest Brownie camera. Soon enough, he was sourcing commissioned assignments in public places including government establishments.
In 1954, he was appointed darkroom assistant at the Ministry of Information. Regarded as a novice, Ojeikere was not allowed to take photographs but instead was given several menial tasks among which were washing and glazing printed photographs for his superiors. Ojeikere being the ambitious person he is, grew tired of the monotony and decided to improve on his skills by purchasing his second camera, a Rolleicord 2.25 x 2.25cm. Soon afterwards, he approached one of his superiors requesting to assist him in developing films from the assignments he covered. Believing he would fail, he instructed Ojeikere to first present images he developed himself from random photographs of the surroundings of the Ministry of Information before he could be allowed to assist him. Ojeikere’s photographs turned out extremely well and from then on, he was more respected and given real assignments. One of the random shots, Guguru Seller, 1954 is the oldest picture in his collection.
Ojeikere is more driven than most photographers today. He was once asked to cover the opening and closing ceremony of the Igogo Festival at Owo which is usually performed by the oba every year. On arrival, the oba rejected the idea, insisting that the whole ceremony be documented. Consequently, Ojeikere had to stay back for two weeks, so unprepared that he wore the same outfit for the entire celebration.
During this period, Ojeikere made it a point of duty to go to the University of Ibadan every week to take photographs of the students. And today, he has over 2,000 photographs of the university students in his archives.
In 1961, he applied for the position of a still photographer for the Television House Ibadan, a division of the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services and the first television station in Africa. Ojeikere attended the interview with a big folder containing 24×16-inch photographs from his collection. There were over 40 candidates present from Lagos who laughed at him for not having a certificate or testimonial and for being the only representative from Ibadan. Fortunately for him, his interview turned out to be a small exhibition as his interviewer Mr Richard Taylor was enthralled by the examples he presented and hired him on the spot.
In 1962, West Africa Publicity, now Lowe Lintas wanted to introduce the beverage Bitter Lemon to Nigeria and requested that Steve Rhodes, the programme director of the Television House recommend the best photographer for the job, which involved taking photographs of Miss Nigeria 1961 and1962. Once again, Ojeikere’s skills were questioned but this time along racial lines. To ensure they could at least receive a presentable shot, the representatives of West Africa Publicity instructed him to take the same picture six times. Eventually, when the film was processed, every shot turned out the same way. They soon realized their mistake and immediately offered him a permanent job, which Ojeikere turned down.
Since 1967, Ojeikere has been a member of the Nigerian Arts Council, which organizes festivals of visual and living arts. From 1968, he began to develop series of photographs of thousands of images notably in black-and-white, exploring Nigerian culture. This has since become a significant anthropological, ethnographic and documentary national treasure. In 1975, he retired as head of commercial photography to establish his own studio Foto Ojeikere, where he serves as chief photography consultant.
Hairstyles is Ojeikere’s best-known and most important body of work through which he draws attention to the elaborate and sculptural forms of Nigerian hairstyles while documenting their evolving style that changes with fashion.
Despite major advancements in technology, Ojeikere still has a love for black and white photography and persists in using an analog camera to capture his body of work, shot largely in black and white. “Any monkey can use a digital camera, you press a button, you play. You don’t need proper skill to practice digital camera because you are not printing. You only take pictures so you are not as controlled.”
‘Okhai Ojeikere’s work has been widely exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries including the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, Tate Modern, London, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. His work also forms part of several important collections like The Walther Collection, The Jean Pigozzi Collection, and the Cartier Foundation, Paris.
He has been honoured with the Chobi Mela Life Time Achievement Award in Photography, Bangladesh, 2011 and the Nigerian Photography Award, Life Time Achievement Award, 2011, for his work and outstanding contributions to the development of photography in Nigeria.
July 16, 2020