Comments/Context: It seems that almost immediately after Pieter Hugo's Nollywood series was published in book form last year, strong opinions started to form on both sides of the work. After following some of the online debate and controversy last Fall (some of it linked below), I was eager to see the images in person and come to my own conclusions based on first hand experience of the prints themselves.
The series is drawn from the busy Nigerian film industry, and depicts a variety of actors and actresses in macabre scenes: a nude man poses in a Darth Vader mask, a man in a suit stands over the bloody carcass of a water buffalo, a nude woman has a machete stuck in the middle of her chest, a man in a top hat and tails with white circles around his eyes sits in a junkyard, a man with a white mask and fake ears stands in an overcoat wielding an ax.
The reactions to these images have been polarized primarily based on questions of documentary truth and intent. For those who see these works as valid depictions of Nigerian culture (or of African culture more generally), charges of exploitation, racism, caricature, and the ignorance of the white man's gaze have all been leveled against Hugo. For those who see the works as merely yet another example of complex staged fictions, many have found these portraits extremely powerful, with a strange and disturbing intensity.
To my eye, these works most resemble film stills from slasher movies, amplified and composed for maximum effect. They have an otherness that mixes horror with an underlying dose of grotesque comedy; strange (and perhaps unknowable) things are clearly going on, depicted with equal parts fear, black humor, and bloody gore. I am in no position to judge with a sense of anthropological correctness whether these images capture Nigerian myths, symbols, or spiritual stories with any fidelity, but I certainly didn't read this as an even handed documentary study. These portraits are weird, wild, and melodramatic fictions that take us to shocking and surreal fantasy worlds, and I'm not offended if the artist took some liberties in exaggerating their details to generate more emotional impact.
As I left the gallery, I was thinking about the inversion of this story and how it might play out. What if well-crafted stylized portraits and scenes of Hollywood horror actors were made and shown in African art galleries; how would the audience respond, given a different cultural context? Would they find them strange and powerful, revolting and disgusting, or just plain puzzling? In the end, I think we see fictions like Hugo's through our own particular cultural lens and history. As such, I saw these works as over-the-top and strangely different versions of universal stories and tales, making them jarring and thought-provoking in new and unexpected ways.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size. The 68x68 prints are $14000 each, while the 44x44 prints are $9500 each. Hugo's work has not really reached the secondary markets in any consistent way to date, so gallery retail is likely the only real option for interested collectors at this point.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Artist site (here)
- Politics, Theory & Photography (here), Amy Stein (here), Heading East (here)
- Book review: Foto8 (here)
Through April 10th
Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001