Photography exhibition at MoMA chronicles vibrant life and history of Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling metropolis

Kelani Abass: Unfolding Layers 6, from “Casing History,” using a letterpress type case and digital print. Abass uses the thin wooden cases to display snapshots from the 1960s and 1970s.
Kelani Abass

In an unprecedented move, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is hosting a groundbreaking exhibition titled “New Photography 2023,” aiming to encapsulate the essence of Lagos, Nigeria, a city teeming with over 17 million people. 

Unfolding until September 16, it showcases 151 works that present a compelling collage of Lagos’s diverse urban landscape.

According to NPR, one notable aspect of the exhibit is that it marks the first time MoMA has featured a group show by living West African photographers, highlighting the importance of international perspectives in the art world. Organised by Oluremi C. Onabanjo, associate curator of MoMA’s photography department, in collaboration with curatorial fellow Kaitlin Booher, “New Photography 2023” signals the commencement of a series of exhibits dedicated to capturing “specific art scenes across the globe.”

Walking through the exhibit, visitors encounter a captivating blend of imagery, juxtaposing the bustling modernity of Lagos with remnants of its colonial past. The contrast is evident in the works of photographers Logo Oluwamuyiwa and Amanda Iheme. Oluwamuyiwa’s “Monochrome Lagos” series vibrantly portrays the city’s liveliness, with scenes of heavily trafficked streets, bridges, and a plethora of people engrossed in the urban frenzy. Iheme’s “The Way of Life,” on the other hand, delves into the decay and abandonment of colonial-era buildings, emphasizing their historical significance.

Notably, the exhibit also pays homage to the city’s sensual beauty. Akinbode Akinbiyi’s “Sea Never Dry” series presents finely detailed black-and-white photographs that exude the unending ebb and flow of life at Lagos’s famed Bar Beach on Victoria Island. These snapshots offer a glimpse of the city’s enchanting coastal charm, where the sea and sand blend harmoniously.

Furthermore, artist Abraham Oghobase brings an intriguing twist to the exhibit with his “Constructed Realities” collages, reconfiguring archival images of local African and colonial figures with legal documents. Through this artistic approach, Oghobase highlights the racist underpinnings of imperial rule, inviting viewers to see history from an African perspective.

The final galleries, “Casing History” by Kelani Abass and “The Archive of Becoming” by Karl Ohiri, explore the interplay between Lagos’s fading past and vibrant political present. Abass repurposes his late father’s wooden letter press cases as display cabinets for snapshots from the 1960s and 1970s, providing a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the early years of Nigerian independence. Ohiri’s collage of old negatives and prints showcases the striking and transformative effects of time and environmental factors on these images, presenting a captivating visual journey through the city’s history.

The exhibition culminates with the powerful and timely photographs of photojournalist Yagazie Emezi, documenting Nigeria’s October 2020 protest against police brutality by the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Emezi’s images encapsulate the raw emotions of the political movement, reflecting the anger, joy, and celebration that defined the demonstrations.

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