In 1950, when he was 20 years old, Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere bought himself a Brownie D camera, without a flash, and began taking photographs, with lessons in photography from his cousin. In the small, west Nigerian village where he was born this was not a usual occupation, yet Ojeikere had a passion for photography. In 1954 he took on a job as a darkroom assistant for the Ministry of Information in Ibadan, and in 1960, the year Nigeria gained independence, he began working as a photographer. The following year, he joined Television House Ibadan, a division of Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services, Africa’s first television station. Moving to Lagos, he set up his own studio and joined the Nigerian Arts Council.
In 1968 he began documenting hairstyles of African women, the body of work which became his life project and is most associated with his name. Over four decades, he photographed about one-thousand magnificent, complex hairstyles, masterpieces of plaits and braids, astounding architectural compositions towering above women’s heads. Photographed from the back, the hairstyles assume the form of a sculpture or a monument: the hair is momentarily appropriated from its organicity and becomes a sophisticated, abstract formalist structure. The black-and-white photographs accumulate into a systematic taxonomy of hairstyle patterns and their cumulative effect subverts the stereotypical concept of African ceremonial traditions, especially regarding women. The ethnographic exoticism is cooled down through the series’ systematic structure, and undergoes a process of conceptualization.
The hairstyles were but one aspect of Ojeikere’s enormous documentary project; unsurprisingly, another major theme he religiously photographed was architecture. In view of the modernization which Nigeria was undergoing, he felt that every aspect of culture that might become extinct and disappear ought to be documented.
The titles of the photographs usually refer to the place where Ojeikere took them, such as Akaba, or the style itself, such as Pineapple or Onile Gogoro —Yoruba for “tall houses.” The name was given to the style that developed during the 1960s in the euphoria which swept post-independence Nigeria. The “tall house” hovering over an African woman’s head is almost an Afro-futurist metaphor: an Africa that shatters all clichés about it, a feminine, modern, futuristic Africa.
The photograph Ife Bronze refers to the hairstyle named after the 13th or 14th century sculpture found in the ancient city of Ife, a religious center of the Yoruba people. The obelisk-style construction towering from the sculptured head seems to represent a king’s head. The sculpture was discovered in 1938, together with 17 other copper statuettes, in archaeological excavations, and was taken to the British Museum, London, one year later. When Ojeikere photographs the phallic hairstyle on a Nigerian woman’s head, and attaches the archaeological title to the photograph, he combines a whole unknown history of works of art, western prejudices and cultural appropriation.
1930 Ojomu Emai, Nigeria
Lived and worked in Lagos, Nigeria, died in 2014