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Azu Nwagbogu

curator and founder of Lagos Photo Festival

One of the most exciting art initiatives to have emerged in recent years is LagosPhoto, the first international festival of photography in Nigeria. Its main aim? To establish a community for contemporary photography that unites local and international artists through images that encapsulate individual experiences and identities from across all of Africa. Heading the festival is director and internationally acclaimed curator Azu Nwagbogu.

Having an unconventional background in public health, Nwagbogu has become a visionary curator, carving out a space for new African art and photography that challenges the lingering cliches that attend Black creative self-representation. Here, he reflects on what curatorship means to him, how we can combat Afro-pessimism and what role both African and non-African photographers have to play when it comes to storytelling on the continent.

Q
In recent years, the idea of “curation” has increasingly infiltrated our daily lives. We curate our Instagram feeds, a local barista might curate a selection of roasts, you name it. But what is the true job of an artistic curator, in your opinion?

A
If you think about it, 20 years ago, if you mentioned the word, nobody knew what you're talking about. And now everyone has an idea of what curation is. This is not surprising seeing the fact that we are all being bombarded with visual culture, and our access to documenting ourselves and our lives around us has never been easier. People are constantly organizing their space in a way that is intuitive and aesthetic. That’s why I’d like to use curation as a synonym for caring: if you curate your feed, your space, an exhibition, it's about presenting it in a way that feels personal and therefore unique. So I don’t necessarily make the distinction between a mundane, democratic idea of curation, and the more intellectualized approach of an artistic curator in a museum.

Q
It’s been quite exciting to see how curatorship has shifted and is not necessarily so rooted in art history anymore, but has become quite interdisciplinary – like anthropology and sociology. What do you think of this development?

A
I think that's a wonderful thing, especially since art history is intertwined with colonial history, so it requires an interdisciplinary approach. We need more shepherding, more guidance, more expertise, and a collective education around visual culture. I am concerned about the fact that these fragmented pockets of learning are emerging, as a result of social economical inequalities we’re witnessing on a global scale at the moment.

Q
Could you give an example?

A
Take museums for example. Museums have deeply entrenched hierarchical structures that determine who gets to be exhibited and who doesn’t. But that is not what the future of museology should be about. I recently visited Palais de Lomé in Togo, a new art space in Togo’s capital, which is very community based. The garden for example, which is tended to by local horticulturalists with knowledge of endemic species, is as important as the space where the artworks are exhibited. It’s a place of knowledge exchange and community.

It’s good to see how decolonization has come to the forefront of public debate, also in relation to museology. But it’s a complex notion – twenty different people will attach twenty different meanings to it. For me personally, I think the antidote to colonization is sharing and dialogue.

Q
For many decades, the African continent has been subjected to a very one-sided form of storytelling, fuelled by what you’ve described as Afro-pessimism before – the prevailing notion that Africa is a place of suffering and an object of pity. In recent years this seems to be shifting, at last. What are your thoughts on that?

A
It is exciting to see there’s now a huge interest in Black portraiture that’s neither rooted in these negative stereotypes, nor merely celebrating Black excellence. It’s a type of portraiture that celebrates the middle, meaning the mundane, or domestic bliss. It’s something that for a long time we never really got to see: a peek inside the everyday lives of middle class Africans or Afro-Americans. That to me is truly radical. With people like Stephen Tayo, Silvia Rosi and Daniel Obasi, we are seeing a new sense of self reflexivity emerge among African photographers, one which interrogates notions of identity, and the agency that comes with it.

Q
In previous editions of LagosPhoto, you deliberately chose to invite Western photographers whose work deals with the continent – a decision which was met with some heavy criticism.

A
It was. But for me I strongly wanted to push against that notion of non-African photographers not allowed to be telling stories about Africa. You have to be vigilant you don’t replace one cliche with another, and counteract violence with another form of violence. I think it is important that these photographers can operate within a dialogue with each other. Take Viviane Sassen for example, who spent her formative years in Kenya. Her work has been cited as being a massive inspiration to [Black] photographers like Tyler Mitchell. To dismiss her work based on the fact she’s not African enough to make work about it, I think is hugely reductive. That doesn’t, of course, mean one shouldn’t be aware of their own power and privileges.

Q
What makes it challenging, however, is that a lot of African photographers don’t have that same access to the global stage that their Western counterparts do.

A
And that’s why hosting is so important, and by that I mean, creating a node of exchange on the continent itself, where intercultural dialogues can take place. That’s how I have envisioned LagosPhoto: a place of sharing, whether it is perspectives or networks or ideas. Generosity should be at the center stage, because that is essentially the biggest antidote to colonialism.

Q
For Homecoming you’ve selected Daniel Obasi as one to watch. What attracts you to his work?

A
Daniel is amongst a handful of talented artists creating important artefacts of our time wether through film, photography or text. His approach to image making is empathetic and singular and one that serves the widest possible audience. The image I selected for my home represents just that. It is perfection. Stillness in motion. It calls me.

Q
What does home mean to you?

A
Home to me means a safe place where I can sing and laugh and be free without worrying about being judged. It’s my sanctuary and space that allows me be imaginative and creative.

Q
Do you have any art pieces you dream of having in your house?

A
I prefer not to dream. I want to wake into my reality each day.


imgs: Desiré van den Berg

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Moments of Youth 08
Giclée print on Hahnemuhle Photo RagSuggested framing: white, full bleed Photographer and stylist Daniel Obasi’s work considers topics like manhood, expression, and sexuality in the context of societal power structures. Taking inspiration from his own and his friends' lives, Daniel’s scenes are...
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Corridors of Power 05
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Moments of Youth 02
Giclée print on Hahnemuhle Photo RagSuggested framing: light wood, full bleed Photographer and stylist Daniel Obasi’s work considers topics like manhood, expression, and sexuality in the context of societal power structures. Taking inspiration from his own and his friends' lives, Daniel’s scenes...
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Self Portrait 03
Giclée print on Hahnemuhle Photo RagSuggested framing: dark wood, full bleed Photographer and stylist Daniel Obasi’s work considers topics like manhood, expression, and sexuality in the context of societal power structures. Taking inspiration from his own and his friends' lives, Daniel’s scenes...
from €590,00
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