|It’s more than just a moment captured; it’s an entire envelopment of what seems to be a delusive reality, unveiled and illuminated. Self-taught South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, creates a charged space between the lens and the subject, in full engagement with the environment. Each individual photographed shares a remarkable story through Hugo’s lens, revealing a somewhat journalistic view in the practice of photographic portraiture. The characters are always rich in contrast to their insipid and often desecrated environment. They possess such a powerful presence, demanding viewers’ immediate attention, sparking simultaneously fascination and fear.|
It’s more than just a moment captured; it’s an entire envelopment of what seems to be a delusive reality, unveiled and illuminated. Self-taught South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, creates a charged space between the lens and the subject, in full engagement with the environment. Each individual photographed shares a remarkable story through Hugo’s lens, revealing a somewhat journalistic view in the practice of photographic portraiture. The characters are always rich in contrast to their insipid and often desecrated environment. They possess such a powerful presence, demanding viewers’ immediate attention, sparking simultaneously fascination and fear. The characters draw forth the sense of an uncertain spirit, the spirit of the people who live in Nigeria and what they have come to represent in our current world. Hugo challenges our perspective and allows his subject’s story to effortlessly unfold, with an uninhibited, magnified strength.
In Hugo’s best-known series The Hyena and Other Men, the focus is significantly placed on the animal as the subject and the man as a secondary “other.” In one of the pieces, Mummy Ahmadu and Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara, Abuja, Nigeria (2005), a young girl is propped sweetly onto the back of a spotted bulk of a creature that is just barely restrained at the neck, with its mouth gently pried open showing jarring teeth. In Dayaba Usman with the monkey Clear, Nigeria (2005), a loosely-chained baboon, laying an affectionate hand over the lap of his owner, is dressed in the guise of a small child. These uneasy scenes grapple the mind when viewers ponder such unlikely situations. “We found them on the periphery of the city in a shantytown—a group of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys, and a few rock pythons,” Hugo writes in his book, The Hyena and Other Men, published in 2007. “It turned out that they were a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who used animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines. The animal handlers were all related to each other, and were practicing a tradition passed down from generation to generation.”
Like gods or ancient heroes marking their domination over the great, wild beasts they’ve broken, the hyena men are symbolic of authority over nature, with hidden, unearthly secrets of how they are able to contain the most ferocious of creatures. Within the Nigerian culture, hyena are seen as witches possessing otherworldly powers. Shrouded by myth, hyena are believed to be humans reincarnated as wild beasts, causing mischief and havoc in the night. Here in Hugo’s documentation, we find humanness in animal and wildness in men; two species coexist in an uncomfortable and startling balance. The Hyena Men, or Gadawan Kura, are a motley circus of characters that run through shantytown streets together in a constant hustle. Eating together, performing together, conjoined in a symbiotic relationship. It’s a provocative, surreal world of enchantment and chaos, a thrilling gateway into a vulnerable place, so intimate and conflicting, it stirs the inner subconscious to question the relations of man and animal.
The most interesting thing about Hugo’s photography is how destruction is so gently displayed before us. It is not only a sense of horror that we feel, but a strange, calm assertiveness. Masks of tarnish and desert dust assist in the layers of emotion that linger between the elements in these images: warrior stances, and vestiges of landscapes left for the earth to bury. In Hugo’s photographs, the land is a graveyard that holds a sense of dilapidated serenity.
One of the issues that Hugo’s work appears to touch upon is the animals’ treatment, or so it seems. “Europeans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals, but this question misses the point,” Hugo states. “Instead, perhaps, we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why they are economically marginalized. Or why Nigeria, the world’s sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray.”
In Nollywood, Hugo’s most recent series, Hugo targets Nigeria’s film industry. Bringing in roundly 1,000 movies per year, Nollywood has broken through to be the third largest film industry in the world, next to Hollywood and Bollywood. In the span of literally a week’s time, Nollywood directors find whatever is most easily accessible. Actors are cast on the day of shooting. Low-grade equipment is used to film on-site “live” footage. The cameramen and crew, usually locals and family members, follow basic scripts to produce a whole film, most of the time, completely improvised. The mass media outlet allows the African society to create a means of self- representation, and exposes it directly to the public eye, especially to the West, creating a world where real-life events trespass the boundaries of fiction. For his Nollywood series, Hugo asked a team of actors and assistants to recreate classic Nollywood myths and symbols just like they are on movie sets. The result is jolts of visceral displays containing graphic imagery. In one work, an utterly bare-breasted woman holds a huge blade ever so gently jabbed between her bosom visible through her back, enwrapped by blood-soaked sheets. Her expression is sedated, perhaps indifferent, despite the horror of this jarring scene. Nollywood is a series full of piercing undead stares, chilling vampires, voodoo shamans, demonic visions, and wounded soldiers, intertwined with curious, quirky segments. It is, in comparison to movie cinema, entertainment at its best, provoking guttural reactions with Hugo’s portrayal so real and present.
Dedicated to his work, Hugo seeks out his subjects and photographs them with unrelenting persistence. His choice of subject matter always cultivates from the graphic, transgressive art. Drawn to “that which we do not want to look at, be it the old, or the terminally ill, or the marginalized,” Hugo transforms the undermined to extra-ordinary.