“I want more conscious photographers who are very aware of what they’re shooting and what they’re trying to say with their work. That way, they’ll make meaningful work that will outlive them,” Mutua Matheka mentioned this quote during his interview and it immediately reminded us of J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. Ojeikere, who started photographing Nigerian Hairstyles in the 1950s, passed away in 2014. His work has been held in some of the most prestigious establishments – such as the Met Museum and the Cartier Foundation – and it continues to be celebrated to date, as well as, acts as a source of inspiration for other creatives.
It’s reminiscent of how African ancestors would pass on knowledge through word of mouth. Here, Ojeikere used the medium of photography to keep a vital part of his culture alive. Whilst artists of today have taken his message and passed it on, using interpretation and skills afforded to them. Simply put, his black and white images are now GIFs. How did they get there?
J.D. Okhai Ojeikere
When Ojeikere was born in 1930 – in a rural Southwestern Village in Nigeria called Ojomu Emai – photography was considered an exotic luxury. When he was 20 years old, he bought a Brownie D camera and learnt the basics of photography. He is considered the forerunner of documentary photography in Nigeria, having captured thousands of images documenting Nigerian heritage. In the 1990s, he spent over seven years documenting Lagos’s architectural traditions to preserve the memory of the infrastructure before the city became the beehive it is today. Nonetheless, it is the work he created from 1968 to 1999, that he is most notably known for: The Hairstyle Series.
A novel idea in it’s time, because it was rare for photographers to do personal projects or work without commercial support for that matter. This project, shot in black and white, consists more than a thousand images displaying elaborate hair-dos of women in Nigeria. Capturing hairstyles every day from a multitude of environments and occasions, he was able to take the fashion aspect of hairstyles and present them as an art form. One that carries an ethnographic, anthological and documentary aspect to them. For example, women could use their hairstyles to communicate their age set or marital status.
However, at the time the project commenced, women preferred wigs and straightened hair to their ancestral dos. Ojeikere was convinced that the hairstyles would disappear forever. He decided to document the creativity of Nigerian hairstyles, that articulated their social and cultural life. Even when they did resume their styles, there was a modern element that deviated from the previous roots. Thus, the project became about remembering the past, additionally, it became a continuous project to act as a testimony of rapid changes within culture.
To Ojeikere, hair goes beyond style and personal preference. It reflected the social and cultural life in Nigeria. He also wanted to preserve the artistry that the hairdressers possessed and had been passing down over centuries. Some of these hairstyles were an indicator of occasions, social status or acted as family crests, with unique designs being adorned by a family and passed down generations as heirlooms. Others were your typical daily hairstyles. Nevertheless, they all celebrated a diverse and unique traditions in Nigeria.
It’s for this reason that he opted to photograph his subjects from the back, and sometimes as a profile shot. “A front photo shows nothing, those of back are almost abstract and reveal the structure,” he explained in earlier interviews. Furthermore, he chose to make the hair the focal point by eliminating backdrops and props.
About seven years ago, the American artist – Medina Dugger – moved to Nigeria, where she discovered the Hairstyle Series. Dugger paid tribute to Ojeikere’s work through a series called Chroma: Ode to JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere (2017), which was showcased on the streets of Daoulas, France. While her collection of images still references the hairdos of the women in Lagos, it’s done through a kaleidoscope interpretation. “I’ve noticed women in Lagos incorporating colourful threads and weaves more and more,” explains Dugger in an interview with Dazed Digital Magazine. “The availability of colourful hair extensions and wools in local markets today has led to unique variations on threading and braiding techniques, providing new interpretations to an age-old practice.”
Through these vivid visuals, the women reclaim their afro traditional style that is rich in meaning, whilst blending in contemporary elements using current hairstyle practises. According to Ojeikere, “Nigerian women have chosen these hairstyles in the post-war period…as a kind of liberation of Western standards, a freedom. ” Dugger kept this liberty in mind when it came to the hairstyles that would be featured in her approach. Not only did it allow these women to embrace their creativity, but it also allowed them to reject Eurocentric beauty standards that endure in Africa. Just like her predecessor, she considers her work an on-going project.
Dugger then reached out to French multidisciplinary artist, Francois Beaurain, to add motion to the series. Beaurain took Dugger’s Chroma photo project and put an animated spin on it to create the Chromatin Series. By turning Dugger’s interpretations into GIFs, they were able to bring out the geometrical patterns in African hairstyles, as well as, re-visualising fractals in contemporary African art. Fractals reference the recursive patterns that hairstyles and art in Africa used to convey a message such as the layout of African villages.What started out as a fascination with Nigerian hairstyles turned into an important preservation of culture and heritage. An immortalization of masterpieces that could have been lost overtime. As expressed by Ojeikere, “All these hairstyles are ephemeral. I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them. I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge. Art is life. Without art, life would be frozen.” His dedication to the project span 40 years but continues to live long after in its own right and as a metamorphic construal of itself. Ensuring his message and vision is preserved in the annals of art for all to see.