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Nigerian artist, George Osodi

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Nigerian artist, George Osodi

Nigerian artist, George Osodi, talks about his exhibition in London, last year. New African went to meet the young artist behind it and talk about his work.

The Nigerian Monarch’s exhibition was the work of George Osodi, one of Nigeria’s most feted photographers, and featured portraits of Nigeria’s traditional chiefs, sometimes alone, sometimes with their retinue. It would be fair to say that the exhibition was very well received even though it represented just a half-way stage in the process that Osodi describes as a bid to “document and archive” Nigerian culture.

But, curiously, the rapturous reviews of Osodi’s Nigerian Monarchs exhibition seemed to focus solely on that subject – they did little to explain that this photographer has had many achievements, including a portfolio of photographs from the Niger Delta, published as a book, that told the story of the terrible environmental degradation wrought by the oil industry (see New African, January 2012).

How Osodi became a photographer is a story in itself. He was working in the financial sector, for the Nigerian subsidiary of the giant French bank, Société Générale. But he felt unfulfilled and was searching for something else to do. He fell upon some old photography books in a local market, purchased them and studied them. He was hooked. He determined that he wanted to be a photographer. Continuing to work in the bank, he put aside money each month and gradually amassed the cameras, lenses and other paraphernalia he needed while using his spare time to take photographs. He says he was drawn to the natural world, and delighted in taking pictures of leaves, rocks, trees, the sky and other subjects.

Finally, he took the plunge and quit the security of his banker job. Then he made the rounds of all the newspapers and magazines in Lagos that might be able to offer him a commission or two. As Osodi tells it, the commissioning editors were less than bowled over by his natural world photographs, but he got a couple of jobs covering factory openings and press conferences – so he had his foot in the door. The other advantage of taking up newsroom work was he had plenty of film and the darkroom and processing services. But life was still tough.

He began selling-off all those things that were not needed for his photography, and gave up his comfortable “banking lifestyle” apartment to move into a tiny, modest  room. His friends thought he was crazy, but he was determined. One day, he was travelling to an assignment when he noticed a particularly beautiful composition of sunlight streaming through the leaves of a majestic tree. He paused to take a couple of shots.

That evening, as well as processing the film for his assignment, he also processed and printed the tree photographs. These he put into the pigeon-hole of the editor of the Sunday edition of the paper he was working on. The editor liked the picture and used it as the cover of his Sunday Lifestyle section.
Shortly after his photograph appeared, he got a call from a European ambassador who asked him to come to see him. Osodi agreed, curious as to why the diplomat had summoned him. The ambassador explained that he had seen the photograph and was very impressed, being an amateur photographer himself. They had a long chat about how Osodi had got the image, discussing apertures, shutter speeds and all the esoteric details of taking a photo.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, the ambassador asked Osodi if he could come and take some photographs at a reception he was holding. That was the start of a long relationship, and it led to others in the diplomatic corps asking Osodi to work for them. It was a well-paid lifeline for the struggling photographer, and gave him the financial means to pursue other photography projects.  

In a side room behind the main Nigerian Monarchs exhibition at the Bermondsey Project in London, Osodi also exhibited his photographs from one such project – the Calabar Festival. They are shot in the manner of the famous Malian photographers, Seydou Keitå and Malick Sidibé. Both these men began taking portrait photographs in their Bamako studios against elegant illustrative backdrops in much the same way that early photographers both in the West and in Africa would shoot individuals and family groups.

They are joyful, expressive images, full of humour and wit, and where the subjects (not taking themselves too seriously) pose in their own way, dressed to their own particular taste in costumes that themselves tell a story. The backdrops and props are also chosen carefully. As Osodi told New African: “There were all these little booths set up at the festival so that people could be photographed and take away a souvenir of the event. All I did was ask the owners of the booths to borrow them for a few minutes, giving them a little money. There was no shortage of people that wanted their photographs taken!”

Osodi is now back in Nigeria, working on his Nigerian Monarchs project, hoping to complete 100 portraits in all. Later this year, Nigeria celebrates the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates by the British colonial government. All the kingdoms were meshed together as a country in 1914.

The Nigerian Monarchs exhibition in London, even if only part-way through, has raised a huge amount of interest – as well as the funds for Osodi to continue his work through the sale of some of his limited edition works. And his agent, curator and producer, Ziggi Golding, is confident that by the time Osodi completes the Nigerian Monarchs assignment, a major exhibition of his work will travel around the world with, for example, major exhibitions in various US museums across America.

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