From the Archives: Lagos’ Waterfront


Apapa Quay, on the mainland, Lagos, Nigeria.
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959.
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

What do you picture when you imagine “earth”? There are surprisingly diverse answers to this question. The exhibition Earth Matters asks each visitor to consider or reconsider their own notions about what earth is, and perhaps to understand what it means for us all.

One artist who has taken up these issues is Jide Alakija (b. 1977, England), whose photographic series “Invisible Cities” portrays scenes of urban sprawl in Lagos, Nigeria, yet his titles refer to different city names from around the world — including Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay,  in the photograph (Invisible Cities #1 (Bombay), 2008) included in Earth Matters (see it – and learn more about Alakija – here). In these photographic depictions, Alakija invites the viewer to consider the urban spaces increasingly spreading across the surfaces of our earth – including, in Invisible Cities #1 (Bombay), water. Alakija’s photographs of Lagos appear interchangeable with Bombay, Ho Chi Minh City, and Miami. What does this mean for our earth, its landscapes and surfaces? And, what does it mean for what we consider “earth” to be?

Alakija made his photograph of Lagos’s waterfront in 2008. Eliot Elisofon, however, took this photograph also of a waterfront in Lagos in 1959. The comparison is striking. Even just a few decades ago, Lagos looked quite different from the vast, sprawling, and global city that it is today. The neatly ordered new modernist buildings with glimpses of cranes in the background (a hint at continuing new large-scale construction) suggest optimism about growth, national independence, and modernist ideals (learn about the Nigerian modernist artist Ben Enwonwu here). It presents a different picture than that of Alakija’s, prompting us to consider that our attitudes may be changing as quickly as the earth’s surfaces. As cities continue their exponential growth, especially in up-and-coming places like Lagos, how do you think definitions of “earth,” ”nature,” and “urban” might continue to evolve? Do you see urbanization as offering promise, as suggested by Elisofon’s photograph, or perhaps dangerous and unchecked growth, as suggested by Alakija? What can we do to make cities better, safer places?  How do we decrease poverty and reduce environmental degradation? Share your opinions below in the comments. 


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