I was intrigued when I heard about Pieter Hugo’s photography exhibition, Nollywood, at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City. Since Nollywood’s initial development two decades ago, film connoisseurs have largely dismissed the industry’s low production quality and trite plotlines as a “low” form of artistic expression. For the most part, Nollywood insiders have faced this insult with pride, insisting that cheap retail prices and simple storylines make their films more accessible and familiar to mass African audiences—in ways that more “cultured” industry competitors do not.
In the Nollywood exhibition catalogue, the Nigerian author Chris Abani recalls an exchange that he witnessed at a conference in 2006. After a Cameroonian director placed Nollywood on the same artistic level as Stephen King, a Nigerian director snapped, “I understand why my Francophone friend here is jealous of Nollywood. We sell films–lots of films–without any funds from the EU. People never see his movies, but ours are bestsellers within days. The last Francophone ‘art’ film I saw showed a ten-minute shot of a camel standing in a desert doing nothing, not even shitting. I may not know what art is, but that is not it.”
But are Nollywood’s days as the black sheep of fine art numbered? Hugo’s portraits elevate Nollywood’s grittiness to the pristine white walls of a Chelsea art gallery. The photographer enlists local actors and actresses to recreate Nollywood myths and symbols, and his images of these re-stagings are surreal and unsettling. One photograph depicts a man in a suit hoisting the bloody innards of a bull over his shoulders, with one foot resting on its dismembered carcass. Yet this striking image is meticulously crafted, professionally framed, and on view at a white cube gallery in the commercial center of New York’s art world. Does such a jarring juxtaposition between the image content and its display foretell the end of Nollywood’s outsider reputation? What do you think?
Update | April 25: When I originally posted this entry, I felt uneasy about Hugo’s representation of “the other” in these photographs, but did not think that I was informed enough to write intelligently about race. Today, I encountered a reaction that articulately dissected these issues.
*Edited by Ms. Nackman