From the Archives : The Ogboni

Image

Members of the Ogboni Society near Onitsha, Nigeria

Photograph by Simon Ottenberg 1959-60
EEPA
2000-007-0973783/1959-1960
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Renowned anthropologist, Dr Simon Ottenberg,  took this photograph in the Afikpo region of southeastern Nigeria during his 1959-1960 research. The original caption says, “The Ogboni Society coming from a meeting at Onitsha, the city on the Niger River, during a trip to visit Richard and Helen Henderson, conducting research in the old town at Onitsha. These were Igbo members of Ogboni, which is primarily a Yoruba society.”

The Ogboni society, also known as Oshugbo in the Egba and Ijebu areas of southwestern Nigeria, is an association of accomplished elders in parts of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.  Members perform a range of religious and political practices, including meting justice for crimes and disputes, installing and deposing kings, and overseeing burial rites. Ogboni members recognize the underground as a spiritual force that unites humankind and witnesses all wrongdoings. Ile, the deity or omniscient spiritual force of the underground, is central to Ogboni beliefs, art, and practices.

The Earth Matters exhibition includes both insignia of office and figures from the meeting house of a Yoruba Ogboni (or Oshugbo) society.  These edan (staffs or insignia of office) and onile (society figures) demonstrate the importance of concepts of the earth to Ogboni. In the ease with which their motifs can be identified, the figurative pair of copper alloy edan suggest the knowable world: male/female, old/young…  and yet beneath each figure is a non-descript iron shaft.  Made from an ore of the earth, these shafts allude to things we cannot know: the unknowable world of the divine and the underground.  Likewise, the terracotta onile figures are made of a material of the earth that alludes to the power and knowledge beyond mere mortal comprehension.

From the Archives : Colonial-era Photoraphy

ImageA young Luba woman in the Belgian Congo
Photograph by Emile E. O. Gorlia (1910)
EEPA 1977-0001-135-01

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution
 
This photograph of a young, unnamed Luba woman was taken in approximately 1910 by Judge Emile E. O. Gorlia from Belgium in what was then the Belgian Congo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorlia was acting as an alternate to the public officer at the time, in Lusambo, a community in Congo’s Kasai province. He was a keen amateur photographer and photographed in detail the experience of being a government official in the Belgian Congo. This particular photograph was taken during his first tour in Africa. It shows a young Luba woman whose name we are unlikely ever to know, wearing bold earrings, a nose ring, and impressive necklaces. There are few details that provide more context to this woman’s story.  All we know is where the photograph was taken—which is not necessarily the same as where the anonymous young woman was from, as populations in Eastern Kasai at that time were being uprooted and displaced due to wars with Arab populations in the north.
 
 
It is interesting to consider this photograph alongside the work of Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, who has seductively and evocatively drawn attention to colonial-era images in which Africans are too often reduced to stereotypes and landscapes appear as wild or unpopulated. In his piece in Earth Matters, Portrait # 2: Femme Urua sur fond d’aquarelle de Dardenne [Luba woman against watercolor by Dardenne], Baloji overlays an 1898 photograph of a Luba woman over a contemporary watercolor of the landscape representing the two conflicting representations of reality.   

Earth Matters Around the Web : 2,370 Irreplaceable Places

Last Wednesday, scientists released a list of 2,370 “irreplaceable places.” The purpose of this list is to prioritize habitats essential to the  rare wildlife, to develop protective measures for these habitats, to make the management of those habitats more efficient, and to curb extinction. A full list of the 2, 370 locations is available at the following link: http://irreplaceability.cefe.cnrs.fr/search?

Out of the 2,370 entries, there are hundreds in Africa – a reminder of the continents many natural wonders and its remarkable wildlife. However, the need for protection is also a reminder of the sever fragility of Africa’s ecosystems and the many threats that it faces. From mining to poaching, Africa has many problems to solve before it can achieve environmental sustainability. One of the biggest problems Africa faces is poverty. Dr. Emeka Polycarp Amechi at the University of Lagos in Nigeria makes this point explicitly in a recent essay entitled LINKING ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND POVERTY REDUCTION IN AFRICA: AN ANALYSIS OF THE REGIONAL LEGAL RESPONSES TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. In fact, in the opening of the essay Polycarp states that the “New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD- EAP) identifies poverty as the main cause and consequence of man-made environmental degradation and resource depletion in Africa.” Polycarp also quickly points out that while poverty breeds environmental degradation, environmental degradations, in turn, breeds more poverty, creating a viscous cycle.

For proof of the links between poverty and environmental degradation, one need look no further than the stunning images of the Agbogbloshie dump site outside of Accra, in Ghana. This site, a dump for electronic waste from developed nations, has become a home for the impoverished, who rummage through and burn the “e-waste” to pilfer materials that can be sold and recycled. One of the most poignant images of the Agbogbloshie dump site was made by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo and is featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Of course, there are many images of many such sites and there are many more sites that are yet undocumented. But the juxtaposition of this powerful image of poverty and environmental degradation and the serene images of Africa’s grandest nature belong together, for they are inextricably linked.

Image

Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo

b. 1978, Burkina Faso

Untitled, from the series The Hell of Copper

2008 (2013 exhibition print)

Chromogenic print

 

Image

Tsavo East National Park, Kenya

Guest Voices: Peter Wheeler

Today’s guest post comes from Peter Wheeler of the Nature Conservancy. Taking leave of this planet, to gain a new perspective on our planet, Wheeler gives us a moment of pause to reflect on the iconic Earth-rise photo that was taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. While filing through the many issues that concern us here on earth, this legendary photo altered are perception of the planet by showing us what it looked like from afar. Here is an apt moment to reconsider this image, our planet, our role upon it, and how Earth Matters from an entirely different vantage point.

The Dark Side of the Moon

“In 1968 Apollo 8 went to the moon…”

What more exciting first line of a story could there be for any earth dweller? To boldly go… three men aboard, among our billions, setting off on the ultimate adventure. Only 11 years after the first man ever, Yuri Gagarin, escaped the earth’s gravitational field briefly to orbit the earth, just once.

Think of that. What were you doing in April 2002, just 11 years ago? Imagine the progress!  On the day they went, a HP12-C pocket calculator cost more than $500 which in real terms (today’s money) would  be almost $3,500.  The total computing power on board the Command Module was less than what you have today in your smart phone. At number 3 in the UK music charts was I’m an Urban Spaceman by the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah band. Earlier in that year, 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon had just defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, but Lyndon Johnson still occupied the White House; the War in Vietnam was in full swing, as was the resistance movement, boiling over into the Summer of Love.

And yet these three were going to travel over a quarter of a million miles to circumnavigate the moon, just to show that it could be done. And to prepare the way for the ultimate Giant Step For Mankind, taken by Buzz Aldrin three missions and just nineteen months later on July 20th 1969 . Three years after that, Pink Floyd would release their best-selling album, The Dark Side of the Moon, opening propitiously with the ringing of cash registers over a jumpy bass guitar line, ‘Money…’

Then this happened: after circumnavigating the moon, being the first men to see for themselves the dark side of the moon, that cold desolate monochrome place, those same three men saw something quite remarkable, more remarkable even than the lunar landscape they were flying over. They saw earth, rising above the stark atmosphere-less horizon, not a full earth but a waxing earth, half in light, half in shadow, but beautiful, blue green and white. Our planet. Earth-Rise.

 

Image

 

Wiliam Anders took this photograph on December 24th, 1968.

The film made of this event is stunning. The impact of the image seen for the first time comes across in the joyous outburst by the crew. Even at mission control in Houston, engineers gazed amazed at their monitors.

Back in 1948, the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle predicted that when spaceflight enabled us to see the whole Earth from space, the view would change us forever. He was right.

I saw this film first, projected onto a huge screen erected in the Rajasthan desert, on September 23rd 2013. With around 100 others, I saw it beneath the stars and, yes, the moon. In the 45 years since that amazing moment, many of us were experiencing it for the first time. No man has trodden on the moon since 1971, so we can safely assume that going there is of no great import. What clearly was of great import was seeing Earth this way for the first time.

Four years before the Apollo 8 mission, Adlai Stevenson addressing the UN had used these words,

“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all…”

Now ‘Spaceship Earth’ really meant something.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_EeaqiHDeE

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7797439.stm

The second time I saw this film, I was sitting in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in DC among 240 trustees of The Nature Conservancy, and the film was introduced by Colonel Ron Garan, a retired US Airforce Pilot and NASA Astronaut, who had participated along with two Russian Cosmonauts on the 50th anniversary mission on a Soyuz TMA-21 launch vehicle spending 13 months on the International Space Station.

When Anders took his famous Earth Rise photograph, Garan was 7 years old.

 

 

Guest Voices: Charles Okereke

Today’s guest post comes to us from photographer Charles Okereke. Based in Nigeria, Okereke’s world Once in a Blue World was featured in the Earth Matters exhibition. Charles was also feature earlier on our blog -https://earthmatters2013.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/earth-matters-around-the-web-charles-okereke/.

Now Okereke comes to us with his own words and meditations on his powerful and personal, world-conscious photographs. Be sure to visit Okereke’s blog for more works of art and news about this renowned photographer at charles-okereke.blogspot.com/.

Earth, a Dying World?  

by

Charles Okereke

 

The Earth was made as a dwelling place for all creatures, which also includes man.

Of all the creatures dwelling therein, Man is the destroyer when he was otherwise crowned with sovereignty. This arrogant attitude indicates an excess of self-worth, and has made man a plunderer rather than a nurturer.

Human beings are the only creatures that have set rules apart for themselves and refuse to conform to laws that guide creation’s movement and sustenance. Man is similarly the only creature that is out of tune with the eco-system and plagued with a one-sided narrow intellectual outlook.

What is sensed and termed as catastrophes globally today are but a retroactive consequence of a misalignment of the forces of nature – mankind so to speak, has dug its own grave, like dying Worlds.

Hdramhindra Blasted-2010 copy

Hdramhindra Blasted (2010)

This period of recompense will be felt globally in every facet of human endeavor, not only environmentally or climatically. But it will likewise reflect in socio-political affairs, which can already be surmised in the upheavals that are perennial occurrences today.

 

Man has been living in an exclusively selfish mentality, devoid of the understanding of the powers which he uses daily, ignoring nature’s principles and adjusting thereby. Economic affairs are collapsing; nations are in conflict, and there is uprising everywhere.

Dis-integration-2010 copy

Dis-integration Cameo (2010)

 

These are visible reverse processes, as the system has to automatically be put back into orderliness by eliminating the inferior and the destructive, be they man or animals, worlds and planets, landscapes and mountains, rivers and oceans, man against man, nations against nations, economic shifts and the rest of them – all these are manifestations of the activities of the Lords of the elements, which man sees as warfare in nature, and perceives one-sidedly as cruel in their manifestations and activities.

Untitled

Collapse of Andromeda Emperial (2011)

Even in routine designs, we know there is a designer with a purpose who strives to make his designs adaptable and useful to the original intention for its creation; how much more for an automatic pulsating life form like the Earth with her inherent regulatory system. Mankind can only learn by compulsion and   experiences in the coming years to adapt naturally.

My concern comes from the simple understanding that we are all connected and a part of the ecosystem, and by my sense of duty to maintain a healthy and natural world.

Saturn Anchored-2010 copy

Saturn Anchored (2010)

 

The work of the photographer of this generation becomes increasingly perilous as understanding narrows. As an artist, I use photography as a tool to highlight this observation and neglect, a state of inertia among the people and to bring about an awakening to consciousness, and of the need to be more proactive on issues that concern us as human beings.

Vasitha-2010 copy

Vasitha (2010)

My work speaks metaphorically, as I tend to perceive the images in a sort of tragic-comic innuendo, which if deduced based on surface perception will not reveal much, unless penetrated. I work as an artist not in a stark documentation of the assaulted environment, but from deductions which expose and interpret without being overly offensive or derogatory in presentation. I work to instigate a re-examining of hitherto traditional precepts which do not further, but hinder our species’ progress towards a healthy maturity.

Likewise, the Planetarium subseries, from my Unseen World series uses common objects littering my local environment to illustrate planets in stages of birth, development and disintegration – effects of the activities of the creatures dwelling therein. This places a grim picture before the people of earth illustrating the urgent need to care for Mother Earth and, perhaps, in this process, provide hope for a rebirth and rejuvenation.

Untitled

Count Down Versuvus (2011)

The fight for a readjustment to the natural order is a constant shift in the consciousness of mankind, as this period is declared a compelling time for obedience, and can never relent to the wills of men, but of a final culmination of purification, which will not cease until there is a change. More is yet to come that will silence man, until he learns the true principles of adaptation.

Untitled

Rebirth of Orpheus (2010)

In my immediate environment, I act more in the sense of an activist for a cause. My pronouncements and photography has marked me out as a crusader of sorts. But these are issues of intolerance which affect all regions, although it could be more heightened and perceived in some areas.

Paradise Utopia-2011 copy

Paradise Utopia (2011)

 

Hence I stand on my duty post armed with the potentials to perceive, deduce and freeze the moments through imagery.

By Charles Okereke, 2013

http://www.charles-okereke.blogspot.com

 

Earth Matters Around the Web: Charles Okereke

Today’s post will feature Nigerian born artist Charles Okereke,  one of the artists featured on the Earth Matter’s exhibition.  Okereke  works with different media ranging from photography, video and  sculpture. He also writes, acts and directs plays and drama pieces.

Charles Okereke

Charles Okereke

Earth Matters features works from Okereke’s Canal People Series which you can view by visiting his blog at http://charles-okereke.blogspot.com/

Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series below is currently showing in Earth Matters.

Charles Okereke  b. 1966, Nigeria Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series 2009 (2013 exhibition print) Chromira print on archival paper 44.5 x 59.7 cm (17 1/2 x 23 ½ in.) Collection of the artist

Charles Okereke
b. 1966, Nigeria
Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series
2009 (2013 exhibition print)
Chromira print on archival paper
44.5 x 59.7 cm (17 1/2 x 23 ½ in.)
Collection of the artist

You can also find out more about this body of work in an interview with the artist here:

http://blog.leica-camera.com/photographers/interviews/charles-okereke-creating-awareness-with-art/

In 2009 Okereke joined the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative, an artist -led project founded by Nigerian artists committed to affecting change in society. The video below traces the group of artists that participated in this project in 2011.

Visit the  Invisible  Border’s website  http://invisible-borders.com/ to learn more about the project

From the Archives: Photography’s role in shaping African identity

“Front view of Bolugun House, Lagos.”
Photographer unknown, c. 1877-1895
West African Photographic Album
EEPA 1995-170002
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

In Earth Matters, an enigmatic photograph, dated 1898, is featured: attributed to the unknown “O. Vincenti,” and labeled “M’Suguma—Tänzer,” the silver-gelatin print depicts two men, probably Sukuma, based on their dress, stiffly posed and likely arranged by the photographer. They stand before a painted backdrop that is not only clearly artificial but its “jungle” theme appears to be at clear odds with the dry, dusty dirt below the feet of the two men.

This photography works to deliver a “factual” record of these two men that would be extrapolated to the Sukuma people as whole. Through the framing and background, the photographer has created a falsified image that appears, nonetheless, seamless and truthful.  In this way, the work brings up questions about the way that photography has worked to shape our understanding of the African people and landscape.

However, in this remarkable photograph from the Eliot Elisofon archives that dates c. 1877-1898, we see a more complete picture of the photographic process, not just the composed or constructed final product. A portable darkroom is visible in front of the building and to the left.  Such darkrooms were necessary for early photography, when wet, non-fixed plates would be exposed and preparation and development of the wet plates had to be done on-site. A crowd of people appears to rest, taking a break from the photographic process. A large camera would have been concealed within the black box. The umbrella lying in front of the crowd seems to indicate the use of a rudimentary flash.

Despite these clues, we can still only speculate as to what was going on in this scene, which was taken in Lagos, Nigeria – thousands of miles across the African continent from Tanzania. But the standing woman, second in from left, is distinctive in her dress and hairstyle, which has been identified as Ghanaian.  Perhaps the group was in the middle of a posed photography session, similar to that in O. Vincenti’s photograph of the Sukuma men in Earth Matters. No matter what event this photograph depicts, what becomes clear is the role that photography has played in creating and affirming our knowledge of faraway places or people, and sometimes perpetuating misconceptions or stereotypes. (For more information on photography in Africa, check out this post on stereoscopes’ role in shaping the international understanding of mining in South Africa).

Further, it is obvious that this history extends back much farther than we typically acknowledge, far beyond what may typically call the “modern” era for the arts of Africa. This camera’s presence challenges our notion of the “primitive” nature of 19th century Africa, and is a reminder that photographs, no matter where, when, or by whom they were taken, document choices and negotiations between the photographer and their subjects, rather than “facts.”