Wakaabout Series: Passport Africa

Superwales by Patrick Willocq

By Pelu Awofeso

Africa is a beautiful mosaic of untold stories. It is composed of 54 countries and Western Sahara, serving as the planet’s second largest and second most-populous continent. Pelu Awofeso, Nigeria’s travel guru, gives us a passport to Africa in this revealing, inspiring and jaw-dropping piece. In this Wakaabout Series, Pelu uses the pidgin English term for “one who is always on the move”, waka about to guide you through parts of Africa that you may not have previously set foot on.

Do you know about —XP for short? Chances are that you don’t. I didn’t either until I saw the photographs by Zied Ben Romdhane, one of the winners of the 2015 POPCAP competition and exhibited at the Yaba College of Technology as part of the LagosPhoto Festival (Oct 24-Nov 27).

Gloves and a mask worn by people affected by XP for protection against uv rays (by Zied Ben Romdhane) exhibited as part of Lagos Photo Festival 2015
Gloves and a mask worn by children affected by XP, for protection against UV rays, by Zied Ben Romdhane

Children of the moon
Romdhane lives in Tunisia, where it is said that one in 10,000 infants suffers from XP. I stood in front of the images trying to digest the gist about kids who suffer from a “genetic disorder that affects the ability of the skin cells to repair the damage done by ultraviolet (UV) light.” In extreme cases, the story continued, “those suffering from XP have to avoid exposure to even the smallest amount of sunlight, and even be wary of artificial sources of UV light—such as neon tubes and some energy-saving fluorescent lamps.”

I pondered, standing under the afternoon sun, how dull life must be for these kids who dare not come out to play under the same kind of weather. They only venture outdoors at nighttime, after the sun has disappeared from the skies, and so they are labeled “Children of the Moon”.

Featuring the works of 35 photographers from 18 countries, the 2015 LagosPhoto Festival was as much an eye opener for me as it was a learning experience. “The selection of artists in this edition of LagosPhoto is based not only on graphic quality but mainly on the fresh attitude and determination to open the debate from inside, surpassing even any post-colonial approach that aims to find who is to blame and to condemn,” curator Cristina de Middel writes in the exhibition booklet.

That evening, after Middel’s remarks—and as I viewed the photographs on display on all-white walls, a glass of wine in hand and weaving my way among hundreds of local and international guests—I appreciated the power of photography to tell more absorbing stories, to show everyday realities of our collective existence as Africans that words alone could not match.

Pantsula by Chris Saunders

South Africa, past and present
About an hour into my walk through the exhibits, I stopped at Andile Buka’s black-and-white photographs, which go back in time to Apartheid South Africa, recreating the lives of white South Africans who enjoyed exclusive access to sporting facilities, especially the tennis courts. Buka dresses up his subjects in the sports gear of that bygone era, photographing them right on the same grounds—in Yeoville for example—that were then out of bounds to native South Africans.

“I wanted to challenge previously conceived ideas of South African black culture that have had social and cultural impacts on the society using clothes that were seen being worn only by white people,” Buka said, his face all smiles. “I used a Mamiya R267. Everyone in the picture is either friends or family—they volunteered.”

A few feet away from Buka’s photo-story was a portrait collection by Chris Saunders. Saunders follows a different track, using several color photographs to describe Isipantsula, South Africa’s main township subculture. The accompanying text describes it as “both a mindset and a lifestyle, expressed through language, music, dress code, and a narrative dance form: pantsula.”

The Prophecy by Fabrice Monteiro
The Prophecy by Fabrice Monteiro and Francois Knoetze

Senegalese Fabrice Monteiro and the South African duo of Francois Knoetze presented some of the most stimulating works at the festival, focusing on issues topping the global agenda presently: pollution and the alarming volume of waste the world is generating per second. You couldn’t see those videos and not be bothered by what your individual action or inaction contributed to the wellbeing of the earth.

In ‘Stone Orgasms’, Angolan digital artist Andre Gisele Keyezua focuses on the damaging age-long practice of female genital mutilation ravaging Africa and beyond. I reckoned the works were intended to alarm the onlooker, to disturb. To prick the conscience of practitioners, if ever they came this close.

“The artwork draws attention to the fact that more than 125 million women worldwide suffer from the religious practice and are damned to live with the physical and emotional scar for the rest of their lives”, this is as described in the exhibit.

Travels without visa
I was delighted to see an unusual yet inspiring take on Africa by Europeans. With is devotion to the Superwales, presenting them in very flattering and glowing colors, French photographer Patrick Willocq seeks to “offer a different image of the Congo and Africa in general, and go beyond images of war which the media tend to focus on”.

Monrovia Animated
Monrovia Animated by Francois Beaurain

And so does his compatriot Francois Beaurain, a mixed-media artist, who lived for a while in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and was intent on showing the country’s brighter side. Beaurain though admits that the West African country, recently paralysed by the Ebola pandemic, “is a tough place where people struggle to make a living,” it is nonetheless “a beautiful and fascinating country”.

I was on another high while viewing the works of Canadian Haitian photographer, Emilie Regnier. Regnier lived in Gabon as a child (she is now resident in Senegal). With “Passport West Africa”, she tackles the subject of migration and the hindrances that international borders are for well-meaning travelers. She imagines a West Africa that shares a common passport and a sub-region that is bold enough to tear apart the “borders imposed by the compromise of the former colonial power”. Like Willocq and Beaurain, Regnier believes that Africa needs to rise up and step away from its constant depiction by the West as a pyre of famine, war and conflict.

This is a challenge to the media in Africa to rise up to the occasion and tell a more authentic story of Africa, stories that promote a vast array of urban development across the board, the continent’s vibrant diversity as well as it contemporary culture. If anything, Africa can take a cue from China and the CCTV behemoth, which has not allowed a cynical Western media to tell its story to the world.

Jua Kali--work on recycling waste (by Tahir Karl Karmali) and honouring the creativity of blue collar workers in Kenya (2)
Honoring the creativity of blue collar workers in Kenya through use of recycled waste by Tahir Karl Karmali

“The purpose of LagosPhoto since inception [in 2010] is clear,” says festival director, Azu Nwagbogu. “To learn, to observe, to explore, and to build a community around contemporary photography as it relates to Africa.”

Nwagbogu might as well have been talking to me. By visiting the festival’s exhibition spots, I gained new knowledge and insights about parts of Africa that I’d not previously set foot on. It was travel of a sort, one accomplished while standing in one place at a time and without having to queue for a visa.

Pelu Awofeso is an award-winning travel journalist and blogger. See more of his travel stories here.