I became aware of Nigeria’s remarkable film industry while working on The Hyena & Other Men series. Everywhere I travelled, out of the corner of my eye, I would catch people watching these locally made films, in bars, hotel lobbies, anywhere there was a TV. The production values at the time were really poor, especially the sound quality, which may be why the films really irritated me at first. But then, at some point, I became more interested in the industry itself, which is the third largest in the world after the United States and India. It wasn’t the economics of releasing between 500 and 1 000 movies each year that interested me so much as the cultural issues coded into a cinema made by local producers for local audiences. Here you have a local entertainment industry that enables massive self-representation through popular culture. I don’t want to overstate things: the Nigerian film industry dutifully produces a mix of banal, weird, interesting and occasionally profound films. What intrigued me was the authenticity at play, and, if you think through it some more, how this exercise of authenticity challenges western preconceptions of Africa.
With these big ideas in mind I started off by photographing on film sets. It was an unproductive avenue. I wasn’t interested in making a documentary project showing the puppet strings – the film cameras, booms, microphones and countless operators behind the scenes. I was more interested in the cinematic ideas and stereotypes that were being fabricated for mass consumption. One evening I met a make-up artist who showed me his portfolio: photographs of actors in make-up. He worked in Enugu, which is much easier to work in than Lagos, and had many connections. We struck a deal whereby he would help me on my portrait series; the collaboration would be a showcase of his skills with make-up and wardrobe as much as mine with a camera.
The portraits were produced over four trips. The individual shoots were not formal events on a movie set – I prefer to think of them as theatrical happenings that came together quite informally at times. Of course, I directed the final compositions – they were not spontaneous occurrences as such. I think it is important to recognise that my photographs offer a selective engagement with the ideas and visual culture of Nollywood. I chose not to engage the soap opera genre, which is big in Nigeria and typically set in upper-class houses. I had no interest in that. My taste is more towards the macabre; I loved horror movies as a child. There is still an element of that in the subterranean parts of my mind.
The arc of the project involved imagining a series of portrait subjects, making them up with actors, and then documenting these fictional subjects. In my development as an artist, this project was the first time I really questioned the veracity of the portrait. I became aware of how one can play with portraiture, that it can be much more than just the superficial depiction of a subject. For example, the portrait of the three enslaved women is easy to misread. But, factually, it is a photograph of three paid actors wearing costumes and chains. Working on this series, and later reading responses to it, I became more acutely aware of what the viewer brings to the image, which often exceeds what is depicted.
Horror for me started at age 13 with vampires. Not the classic kind. Not Dracula or even Fright Night but Rabid, David Cronenberg's feverish early sci-fi horror porn. I remember the fear. Hands, little fists clutching the remote control, fingers itching, twitchy. I remember that feeling. The dizzy swell of skin making sweat, eyes swimming in their sockets, the thrill of watching what I wasn't allowed to watch: someone losing their mind, someone growing claws and hair, someone naked, panting, someone sucking a woman's neck with their fangs.
Mostly I remember the blood: too red. The fadeout on the heroine's body: her face larger than the frame; uncontrollable lust, eyes that bleed beyond the screen. I don't remember the plot, the story. I do remember I returned the tape unwound.
Fast forward. Flicking through Pieter Hugo's Nollywood series is like a rewind. I'm banged back.
Imagine: The vampire bent over the corpse. Eyes that shine like polished copper. The lips draw back as the mouth opens. The teeth are exposed.
The monster so close you could touch it. I want to look away but I can't. I'm sucked in; the thrill and of being too close to things, the fear of seeing how close I could get, off seeing what I wasn't allowed to see. My eyes. Something pushing from the inside out. I look and look. Like the reconditioning finale in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex's eyes are pried open with metal spiders so that the movies can slip in like ghosts, like vampires.
Part of the discomfort is the politics. Isn't this stuff meant to be exploitative? I'm thinking of Marx's famous description of capital: "dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." Colonial vampire: bloodsucking foreigner draining the lifeblood out of Africa. The monster that wont die, seducing its victim into erotically charged feeding frenzies of capitalist extraction. Its victims thus infected, colonised, by the vampiric impulse. The endless cycle.
It's all so easy to blame history. To theorise my discomfort, put the words on the page between me and the pictures. Write them off. To disarm my fear. But that's just a part of the story. Something else haunts me: something much messier, thicker, much redder, too red...
My eyes are locked on the images but my mind drifts back to the cyber 90s. Donna Haraway had this theory: she initiated us into the vampire's rituals of blood. She saw the vampire as a transgressive figure, infecting blood; threatening normal human constructs with racial and sexual mixing.
It's like this: if the obsession with strictly defined boundaries haunts Western conceptions of subjectivity, perhaps the vampire, the figure who lives by crossing lines, messing with those boundaries tells us something about how they are made, how they can be ripped down.
Image: the bloodsucker caught in the act, lips drawback from his teeth, the glow that emerges from deep within his eyes.
With incisive detachment and rampant imagination, he feeds, transferring an illegitimate substance, transforming his "victims" from the living to the undead, giving birth without sex, trafficking in the unruly logics of fluids, mixing and spilling and infecting blood.
Boundaries become confused: documentary bleeds into fiction as reality and fantasy fuse. Nollywood and Hollywood trade secrets. Catwomen of Outer Space-style sci-fi mixes with Black Caesar-style syncretic blaxploitation. Spiritual belief systems are played through videogame warzone in an unlicensed gameshow-without-end. Identity changes and shifts and cracks open. As Haraway writes, the vampire "drinks and infuses blood in a paradigmatic act of infecting whatever poses as pure."
Image sequence: the Madonna reimaged as the ghost of the Emperor Haile Selassie meets Idi Amin, Charlie's Angels do Rambo - Foxy Brown-style, David Lynch's Lost Highway snakes through Lagos, Ghostface Killa mutates into Fela's "Zombie" and Dracula gives way for Blacula. Voodoo, hoodoo and mambo are mashed up with Igbo rituals. Ahhwooooo... Werewolves of Lagos.
Time is stretched/ reversed/accelerated - fu(n)cked-up. In The Land Of 1000 Demons bodies rise from the rumble like the gyrating undead child soldiers in Emmauel Dongal's Johnny Mad Dog. Landscapes that recall TS Eliot's Wasteland (itself a blasted stretch made up of dead fragments including Bram Stoker's Dracula) are remixed with Public Enemy's crack-hammered badlands and CNN-style hell-on-Earth war zones.
Image: Soldiers garbed in camouflage uniforms, festooned with weaponry: pistols, hand grenades, dangling rifles. Bloody limbs strewn about the floor, a body dismembered.
It's all happening now. Philosophising vampires, Deleuze and Guattari tell us: "We live today in the age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and leftovers." Here fragments and ruins are no longer melancholy reminders of a vanished order. They've become instead the pieces of a hyperactive child's playground.
The play continues as Pieter Hugo inserts himself in the mix via a self-portrait of the photographer as a young colonial blood-sucker, the hooded (in the hood?) white slave-trader/ executioner. Even his explanation is a big clich. "Too much beer and chicken..." He laughs when he tells me - laughs it off? Is he serious? Not so fast. The pictures tell a different story. His self-conscious meta-commentary is upended, unmasked by a reverse mirror image, an inverted photographic negative featuring a black alter-ego, a cold and forbidding, more-than-masculine naked gimp; an oversized dick with a Darth Vader death-head.
Through this double-play Pieter assaults divisions - white vs black, dominant vs submissive, author vs authority, Alien vs Predator, Ekwensu vs God - simultaneously embracing the worst stereotypes and snarling "fuck you" at all of them. The result is something akin to that which happened when Afrika Bambaataa dropped the melody from Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express into Soul Sonic Force's Planet Rock. Rhythmic bursts. Like blood thudding in the ears. Not so much a deconstruction as a calculated destruction of representation itself. Features cut loose from their trajectory/ presence in time, red stains wrecking physiology. I watch the red spread. I feel my face flush.
Welcome To the Terrordome. And Nollywood is scary shit, but not in a Hollywood way. Rather than employ the rituals of history, myth and mystery to seduce and then placate us, scare it all away - all the shit that's not suppose to be scary but really is, Pieter throws it in our face.
Image: A dagger through the heart. The bodice ripped wide. The loose breasts roll.
According to Baudrillard seduction is "that which lets appearance circulate and move as a secret"; it "makes things appear and disappear." Monsters are seductive, therefore, because they are never wholly present; they allure my gaze, beyond visibility, into the realm of that which is secret and hidden. The West is transfixed by media's negative portrayal of Africa, what's been called its "horror index" precisely because it invents a "pathology of spectrality and transience".
In opposition to this, Pieter's monsters confront us on their own terms; head on, they stare us down. Instead of lurking in the shadows or hiding under the bed of our eternal subconscious nightmare, the figures are starkly light. Their bodies undo sight. Monsters from a nation's Id suddenly demanding equal time as thinking and dreaming and sexual citizens. They face us without even the faintest glimmer of a possible absence, in the state of radical disillusion; Baudrillard's "obscene transparency" of "pure presence."
What Nollywood seems to be suggesting is that it is not the "I" of the photographer or even the "I" of the viewer, but the eye of the camera. We're thrown from "representation" (of something real) to "simulation" (with no secure reference to reality), the normal relation between sign and referent radically remixed so that we lose the connection, once presumed to exist, between sign or image and the reality to which both were thought to refer.
Its is an "unfamiliar" unconscious, a hyper-real d(r)ead zone, a different primal scene, one that does grow out of the old dramas of identity and reproduction. Not nation but a radical alien nation. Pieter's work occupies that edge, the t(r)ipping point where narrative turns into an endless cycle of rejecting, appropriating and expelling, digressing from the thread of the possible, to the impossible. The radical otherness evoked by the images opens up an outside, a displacement of the deadlock of cynical capital power we find ourselves in; the possibility of other worlds without the trivial categories and opposites within Earthly language.
Reproduced here with kind permission.
© 2009 Stacy Hardy. All rights reserved.