Drawing inspiration from the vivacious compositions of '60s and '70s African studio photography, Lakin Ogunbanwo captures the essence of Lagos (Nigeria) culture. Within his portraits, the Nigerian photographer and filmmaker often uses purposeful placement of fabrics and props to conceal the subject's face. This signature motif grants him the creative autonomy to craft a meticulous narrative, one that counteracts the West’s monolithic gaze on Africa. We talk with Ogunbanwo about creating across mediums, motion work and his upcoming residency in Amsterdam.
Your work has previously been denoted as enigmatic. Can you summarise the creative narrative at the core of your vision?
It started with capturing and documenting beauty in the way I saw it, but gradually morphed into a (deeply personal still) engagement with my culture and the world around me, through portraiture.
You draw inspiration from the vibrant compositions found in African studio photography from the '60s and '70s. Are there any particular photographers from this era who conjure this inspiration? Or, rather, does the entire epoch serve as a muse?
I really love the work of Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere – the sort of portrait work these artists did is very much aligned with what I want to do. It's the way they captured their times and culture, with the littlest subtleties, the sets, the clothes, the hairstyles and the poses.
As a self-taught photographer, would you say you approach commissions and projects with a less restrictive and more creatively malleable outlook?
Now, yes, these are the kinds of commissions I want to engage with. It's important for me to still have my voice be as loud and as present. That's not to say I haven’t felt restricted in commissions, a boy’s gotta eat.
Your most recent motion work is the Ojo-Aiku film which presents a meticulously produced portrayal of the increasing division between generations. What can you tell us about this project?
It was a real joy to make. As I have grown in my career I have noticed an increasing desire to experiment with new forms, to find new ways to tell the stories I see every day and make sure I capture them well. I’ve already started work on my second film and hope to finish it this year.
One common motif within your photos is the use of bare skin. Usually, this is used to deplore erotic and subversive undertones or innate vulnerability within an image. Is this the case within your work?
It very much is with my work and it's ultimately the way I (personally) move through the world.
One of your projects presents a portrait series of partygoers in Lagos and their Aso Ebi. You previously mentioned how you found awe in observing how the average person interpreted or used the fabric to create these expert exhibitions of fashion. Can you explain some more about the vision behind this project?
Again, it's in line with documenting my culture. I grew up seeing my mum and her sisters or friends wear their Aso Ebi to parties and events every other Saturday or so. But what I quickly noticed was how personality and personal style informed how these fabrics were used and interpreted. Shooting this project especially in these times will be a good observation of cross-generational fashion choices.
Within your imagery, faces are often concealed by the conscious placement of props. Why is it that you chose to mask the identity of your subjects?
It's easier for me to communicate whatever it is I’m trying to do without a face. With a face, there is curiosity about who the subject is, what they’ve been through etc. With their bodies, I can tell whatever stories I choose to without the viewer’s curiosity about the subject.
This year you were awarded a 3-month residency in Amsterdam by the Thami Mnyele Foundation - congratulations! What do you plan to work on during your time in the Netherlands?
I honestly don’t know right now. It was meant to be in 2020 and I had planned to learn more about the city by doing a series of portraits but right now, I want to be there and feel what the experience may inform work-wise.
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One major issue within the creative sphere and beyond is the west’s monolithic gaze on Africa – your work is redefining this very ideology. Is this redefinition a direct ambition within your work or rather a productive byproduct of your creation?
It's definitely a by-product. My work is very much a personal response and effect to my immediate environment. It's me, it's layered and nuanced and not necessarily linear (like the human experience).
Creating both photo and motion-based masterpieces, would you say you have a preferred medium? Furthering this, do you think there is a difference within the capabilities of these forms to communicate your message in differing ways?
Photography will always be my first love, and now motion is becoming a close second. I do think motion may lend itself to more of the kinds of stories I want to tell. Motion picture allows me to tell universal stories with subtleties that I’m not sure photos can adequately convey.
On social media, you utilise your platform to address issues such as police brutality and gunfire. Are these topics you would consider addressing within your work?
I will, when it feels organic and I strongly believe it will have the most impact.
What are your plans for this year? Are there any other mediums you wish to experiment with?
Oh yes, I am considering large scale installations and maybe even painting. It's a little scary as I’m not classically trained, but like with photography it was about organically and honestly expressing. It's what it's always been about, self-expression.
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