It has escaped no one’s attention that over the last couple years, Lagos has become one the most exciting creative hubs in the world – churning out exceptional talent in culture, fashion and music. One of the names breaking on the scene is Lagos-based multidisciplinary artist and creative Daniel Obasi, who's been doing graphic design, styling, photography and filmmaking in the last five years alone.
Daniel’s first introduction to the arts was as a graphics design intern at a security company in 2012. While in university, where he studied Language, Obasi found himself developing an interest in the world of fashion and paying special attention to how the society around him perceived gender roles and masculinity. With a keen interest in old cinema and Afrofuturism – an imaginative framework that can be employed to create visions of the future, while still referencing the past – Daniel Obasi is deeply concerned with advancing the scope of African storytelling. Creating a visual space in which African men in particular are allowed to express their sexuality and vulnerability, is a common thread across his projects. Here he reflects on the merits of being a multidisciplinary, challenging traditional notions and the magic of self portraiture.
You are a multidisciplinary artist: alternating between styling, directing and photography. What do you consider the biggest merits of this approach?
I never consciously set out to do it all but I went on to explore all these different mediums to really put the vision across that I had in mind. For a long time Nigeria’s magazines mainly consisted of glossy’s – everything was just very ‘pretty’. There seemed to have been an absence of ‘wrongness’, and a lot of the references were very Western, or high fashion-oriented. Images were super polished and airbrushed. And there I was, wanting to explore a side of Nigeria that I just didn’t see represented: a country with huge diversity. To get there, I had to be experimental, and explore different mediums, whether it was film, fashion or photography. Now I've gotten to a place where I seem to have some sense of mastery over how all these mediums work. This means that I'm no longer afraid to collaborate with other people. There’s less fear of my voice being swallowed.
What were your initial inspiration when you were just starting out?
I am a nerd, and grew up loving SciFi, as it was the genre that really pushed the boundaries of what is possible, and of your imagination. I was crazy about movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. This later developed into Afrofuturism – still a huge inspiration to this day – which turned out to be a wonderful canvas, because there isn’t really much restriction. It’s a space free of political and social constraints, which allows it to examine big themes like race, spirituality and sexuality.
One of the first fashion projects I did was about an alien who crash-lands in town and goes on to explore local customs. It might seem a bit childlike at first but it ultimately explores ideas of belonging.
You sometimes turn the lens onto yourself as well. What is the magic of self portraiture?
I feel like an energy shift takes place when I pose in front of the camera. I’m normally very shy and self conscious but not when I photograph myself. I’d put on this highly stylized look and become this character that on a normal day, I would not be. I consider it to be some form of performance art. It's like an avenue for me to just visually vent out issues I deal with – from insecurity to anxiety.
You have been hailed as part of a new Black vanguard, a generation of photographers which seeks to challenge the idea that Blackness is homogeneous. Do you consider your work to serve as a form of visual activism?
I do. One of the more recent projects I did is called Corridors of Power, which examines the idea of power structures within society, and how they affect sexuality and masculinity. To give some examples: in one of the images we celebrate a non-binary wedding, which was my way to challenge one of the deeply ingrained traditional institutions in Nigeria, which is marriage. There are also elements like beauty pageantry – including long beautiful hair and femme dresses – that are a form of critique on how politics has militarized LGBT+ representations as being ‘filthy’.
For me, that is how I address activism. I pick elements within society and find a way to critically yet playfully address it.
It’s been really amazing to see a lot of young Nigerian photographers like yourself carving out a space for themselves. What are some of the challenges you face as this new generation?
I mean it is very liberating to see that a lot of young creatives are getting to a point where they are no longer covering or hiding, and are expressing themselves fully. When I first started I fell in between fashion and art, and people didn’t really know how to pigeonhole me – so you have to figure out where you belong.
I always trace that back to the fact that there is a lack of platforms here locally, because we don’t have that ‘hardware’ or structures in place. It leads to a huge export of West African talent towards the West. It seems like a creative’s work only gets validated when it is featured in Western galleries, publications, et cetera. So local artists yearn for that recognition. But what often ends up happening is that we get lumped together as ‘the new rising artists from Africa’, rather than individual profiles being written about us and our work.
You’re being framed as a Western ‘discovery’, yet again.
Exactly. But it remains a bit of a double-edged sword, because you want to be respected and to be approached – for the right reasons. Not to be part of some sort of checklist.
Can you describe your work in three words?
Sensual, it’s bold for sure. And it’s true…
Last but very much not least, how was working with Beyonce?!
I didn’t get to work with her directly, but the project itself was just such a beautiful collaborative experience ovall. Getting the brief, I was able to put my interpretation on it, that felt very freeing. I got to do what I love to do and I'm very proud having to have been part of such an iconic project.