Guest Contribution by Andrea Stultiens
Observations and thoughts on The Silent Majority Project, a photography and public art project in urban slum, Makoko.
In an exhibition on American photography in 1978, MoMA curator John Szarkowski made a distinction between photographs that offer a window to the world and photographs that reflect (mirror) the intention of its maker. An exhibition of photographs made by teenagers from Makoko as a result of a 6 month workshop took place in their neighbourhood, adding their windows to the houses built on water.
Makoko is a neighborhood in Lagos. It is an extremely photogenic one thanks to two of its features – that it is partially built on water and, that most of its residents are poor. Think women wearing colourful clothes on canoes. Think naked children floating around in plastic tubs, smiling at the camera. In mid 2012, Makoko made world news when local authorities gave orders to clear part of the waters occupied by houses on stilts.
Most photographers visit Makoko once or twice. They take their photos, and publish them for an audience elsewhere for viewers to see this exotic place. Living conditions look so poor that it is not strange to be glad not to be there yourself. At the same time it is beautiful enough to want to see it on photographs. The people photographed usually do not see the photos taken, let alone the publications that feature them.
The Silent Majority project is not novel, it is not the only initiative where children were given cameras and asked to capture images of their lives. It has happened before, for example, in Nairobi when American photographer Lana Wong did ‘The Shootback Project’, in Calcutta where British artist Zana Briski carried out the ‘Kids with Cameras’ initiative, and in Brazil where British photographer Julien Germain (in collaboration with Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Godoy) worked with street children. I am a photographer from the Netherlands and have also contributed to this pattern ( that I’m sure you are noticing by now ), when I worked with children in the Netherlands and Uganda and arranged an exchange with photographs between them. We, the British, American, Dutch photographers seem to like using these possibilities we have to give others, preferably children, opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Olusola Otori and Adolphus Opara are both Lagosians. Otori was trained as a painter though now uses various media, whilst Opara is a documentary photographer. They decided to approach the image making of Makoko differently. They were building on workshops that Otori had been doing in northern Nigeria, trying to give children from underprivileged circumstances an opportunity to develop their creative skills and give them a possibility to express themselves. All this under the umbrella of ‘The Silent Majority Project’. On a voluntary basis Otori and Opara started teaching a group of teenagers in Makoko twice a week. Awareness of formal aspects of image making was created, the basics of photography were taught. From the initial fifteen students five made it to the end. Works by four of them are now on exhibit in their own neighborhood.
On Friday March 1st the photographs were hung. Preparations had been made, meetings with local chiefs held. Despite all this, another official permission was needed from those chiefs before the photos could be stapled to the houses. Once that permission was granted the images went up in no time. They looked spectacular, Monday and Suleyman, two of the photographers who did a lot of this work, seemed to be very proud. So was I, as someone who got involved only very recently with what Otori and Opara had been working on for years. At the same time questions popped up in my head.
Whose houses were these photos printed on canvases stapled to? Did the people living in them like the images? Were they happy with the two logos that their house all of a sudden displayed (of the Goethe Institute in Lagos, who made the exhibition possible and of The Silent Majority Project). Would they have selected another photo if they could have had a say in it? Was the way that these prints were entering their environment enriching it? And if not, was the very sympathetic cause behind it enough to justify it?
I do not have answers to these questions. My own (outsider’s) experience has taught me that it is impossible to take all issues connected to them into consideration and still make things happen. This exhibition once again shows how complicated it is to show photographs that are of a documentary nature in a public context. This has to do not only with what the images show, but it is also with the ownership of public space. In this case the photographs were made by young people in their own community. The images were shown in their neighborhood, but to whom? Who was the imagined audience of what they documented?
A much larger number of outsiders than the small group working with Monday and Suleyman to hang the photographs, came to Makoko on Saturday for the opening of the exhibition. After seeing a short (work in progress) documentary, made by Joel Benson, they entered boats to tour the exhibition. Watching the visitors return to the mainland I think I saw some evidence of culture shock. Not just on the faces of the non African visitors, but also on those of the Lagosians that had not visited this part of their hometown before. Or was it just a projection of my own feelings and experiences?
The Silent Majority project was started in 2010 by Adolphus Opara and Olusola Otori. The aim for this grassroots initiative is to positively affect the lives of people in their own environment through art and photography. Workshops were held and the photographs in Makoko made by Anthony Monday, Afose Suleiman, Mary Awajinumi, and Peter Onge which were shown for the first time in a public exhibition in Makoko. Andrea Stultiens got involved as an advisor/curator to support Opara’s and Otori’s efforts towards the recent ephemeral installation launched on March 2, 2013.
For more insight | thesilentmajorityproject.blogspot.com
Other relevant links |
Placing images back where they are made | jr.art.net
Andrea Stultiens does things with photographs. She makes them, collects them, looks at them, thinks and writes about them, and sometimes she makes the results of this visible to the rest of the world. She is amazed by how we are influenced by our environment. By how we take control of that environment, how we mould a fictional variant of ‘real life’ and remember it with the help of photography.
Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria | Doing our part to combat immappancy
All images courtesy of Andrea Stultiens. All rights reserved.