In the late '50s and early '60s, a foreign plague threatened to wipe out an integral part of Nigeria's indigenous culture: Nigerian women started wearing wigs.
Nigeria has a rich history of elaborate hairstyle traditions; for centuries, women had braided their hair into gorgeously intricate constructions. They would pass down the secrets of these designs and patterns from generation to generation. But a blight of mass-produced foreign wigs gradually eroded the knowledge base.
In the same way fast food obliterates indigenous cuisine, wigs were a quick and easy alternative to hairstyles that could take five hours to create. They were also modern and "Western" hairstyles; the international zeitgeist of the era certainly encouraged Western assimilation. As well as a reflection of culture and fashion, hair has long been a mark of personal and political preference for black women. It's not just a postcolonial thing; in the United States during the '80s and '90s, some women lost their jobs for wearing braids to work.
Photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere noticed the slow and steady impact wigs were having in Nigeria, and he started to seek out and photograph traditional hairstyles. Ojeikere was working for West Africa Publicity when he joined the Nigeria Arts Council in 1967. It was at a 1968 arts festival that he first took images devoted to Nigerian culture; his photographs of hairstyles would become his most extensive series. Anytime he saw an interesting hairstyle, he asked if he could photograph it. His collection has grown to more than 1,000 images.
Forty of his photographs are on display at the Blaffer Gallery in "J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere: Hairstyles."Additional images are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as a part of "African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection."
Ojeikere worked for ten years with the Ministry of Information and learned systems of cataloging images. His black-and-white photographs have a kind of clinical, governmental documentary feeling similar to that of passport photos. The cool, gray tones of the paper and the stamps and numbers at the bottom are a part of Ojeikere's cataloguing system and become part of the effect. It's an aesthetic that works well with the project.
Ojeikere photographs the backs of women's heads and shoots them from the side. In the rare instances he documents their hairstyle full on, the women look down and away. The images aren't about portraits of individuals; they're about the artwork that is the hairstyle. Ojeikere hones in on its abstract, sculptural qualities.
And the styles are amazing. Elegant, snaking coils of hair are tightly wrapped with shiny thread to create elaborate constructions. Tiny intricate braids loop themselves into dramatic headdresses. Flat braids move across scalps with tidy precision or swirl organically, emphasizing the curve and shape of a skull. Some of the styles can be traced back thousands of years, appearing on ancient bronze and terra-cotta sculptures. There are hairstyles worn for marriages and celebrations. Some of Ojeikere's collection are newer innovations -- creative experiments that, according to one of Ojeikere's subjects, Elizabeth Akuyo Oyairo, came about after Nigeria's independence in 1960.
Born in 1930 in a small village, Ojeikere wound up working in the fields after his father died, until a neighbor lady, whose husband was a photographer, advised him that it was an "easy and lucrative profession." Ojeikere's father had been a farmer and an artisan, and he too wanted work he could do with his hands.
He took his neighbor's advice and bought an old Brownie camera at the market for two pounds. Then the neighbor's husband pointed out that it would need film. He showed Ojeikere how to load it and gave him a couple of tips on taking photographs. Ojeikere promptly went out and took all 12 shots in the roll. Patrons drinking palm wine at a bar asked him to take their pictures, and Ojeikere asked to be paid for them. A photographer was born.
Sort of. First Ojeikere had to learn how to develop film and print photographs. The neighbor gave him a list of chemicals to purchase, and they mixed the chemicals and developed the film outdoors at night, under a blanket. They used kerosene lanterns to expose the negatives on the paper. Ojeikere wouldn't see a real darkroom with electricity for several years.
An encounter with a traveling cinema projectionist gave Ojeikere the address of the Ministry of Information and the idea to apply for a job there. He wrote a letter asking the ministry for a job in its photography service. When he didn't hear anything, he wrote another letter 15 days later. He repeated the process every 15 days for two years. Finally he got a reply: They said they had received his request.
That was enough encouragement for Ojeikere to travel to Ibadan and present himself to the department. "Oh! You're the one who bothered me for so long. What do you want?" was the director's greeting. Ojeikere declared he wanted to learn more about photography and pulled out some of his prints. The man laughed and told him to come back in June. Ojeikere did return and managed to secure the last available position: as a darkroom assistant. From then on, electric lights replaced kerosene lamps in his work.
Ojeikere went on to become a studio photographer for the first Nigerian television station; after that, he worked for West Africa Publicity. He finally opened his own studio, Foto Ojeikere, in 1975. The 20-year-old who learned to develop film under the stars became a well-known Nigerian photographer and cultural chronicler.
In his collection of hairstyle photos, 74-year-old Ojeikere pursues his subject matter with the same determination that marked his road to becoming a photographer. He successfully rode the waves of change in his country while compiling a record of the past.
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