Pieter Hugo photographs throughout Africa people and landscapes that reflect the continent from various aspects: communities working on the margins of society, traditions that continue in numerous metamorphoses, destructive results of war and technology. As a photographer he bears, almost as an indictment, the fact that he is a white man born and living in South Africa and thus a product of colonialism. A stranger, effectively, in his homeland.
His series of portraits include people who are blind, people with albinism, people who died of AIDS in their coffins or actors from Nolliwood, the Nigerian film industry. In 2004 he photographed landscapes in Rwanda which still held—a decade after the genocide—vestiges of the mass murder; in 2011 he photographed a dangerous, toxic, post-apocalyptic landscape: a landfill which is considered the world’s biggest dump site for computers. The series “The Hyena and Other People” was made in Nigeria during 2005–2007, and centers on a group of “hyena handlers” (Gadawan Kura), itinerants who travel with hyenas and other animals and hold performances like a travelling circus. This group is composed of several men and one girl, one of these men’s daughter, and their animals: hyenas, baboons and snakes.
The group also makes a living from selling remedies which they concoct from herbs and powders, meant mostly for self-defense: protection from various animal bites and against the magical-primeval danger of turning into animals. The photographs indeed reveal an unexpected symbiosis between humans and animals, and a coexistence that deviates from controller/controlled distinctions. The titles of Hugo’s photographs include the names of people and animals equally; the girl’s gingham dress merges with the hyena’s fur (Mummy Ahmadu with Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara, Abuja, Nigeria); the men’s long and colorful skirts, as well as the bracelets they wear on their ankles as amulets against animal attacks, all have the same material presence as the hyenas’ muzzles. Each detail enhances the human–animal hybridity, the attraction to and repulsion from the animal.
The handlers’ hyena hunts are ceremonial in all senses, accompanied by singing and torches, and most men have been doing this since childhood. It is a profession passed on from generation to generation. The Gadawan Kura retain a voodoo tradition that might meet with opposition in Africa, yet in most places is accepted as part of the cultural-economical arrangement whereby animism and computers coexist without judgement, without distinction between superior and inferior, between culture and nature.