In a season of futurism and flaunted venerations-of-the-moment, scarcely—often so scarcely—do we encounter a photographic image impelled by a distant past. Taking the country as a whole, this aesthetic paucity may have risen from invasions of a common postmodern sensibility; one which is poised to deconstruct a body of acknowledged reality, and then articulate such to very individualistic perspectives.
On another end, however, while it can be assumed that history—and the obsession with it—is barely a commodity for the masses, yet one against the same; its gradual erosion in the area of contemporary photography may also signify that a people have become exhausted in being made to appear incapable of confronting a stark reality, made to appear to suffer from bygone denial, to seem compressed beneath a veil of cruel memory or, perhaps, to carry their emotional involvement with that memory so far as to interfere with their hedonist will.
Whatever the case may be, oftentimes, the final choice is to forget. After all, to forget could be therapeutic, like the case of a placated tumour – the way its bearer feels after it has been severed from the skin. But, somewhere in the bustling recesses of Lagos, a young photographer disagrees. Evocative and advocative, Lawal Fawaz’s photographs might disturb a culture that glorifies forgetting.
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What comes to mind when we think of photography and the Nigerian history? Express, mind-enervating images with the accompanying bluntness: colonial ships, smoky battle lines, a clustering crowd, chaotic streets, or the occasional serenity of a white presence. This kind of photos, as well as portraits of agitated politicians and activists, occupies the mind’s ledge. Sometimes, it is almost as if the array presents to us a weary stereotype for memory, true yet incomplete; consigning other serious facets to the darkness. To put it as the novelist Emmanuel Iduma does in his essay, ‘Face in the Archive’; it becomes ‘a repository of violent condescending observations’.
Fawaz’s El Carbón Series is a remarkable deviation from said stereotype. As the title implies, it is a collection about the toil of a forgotten class (of Nigerian coal workers), a forgotten industry; it is about a culture of struggle and destitution, and its effects on a people; but it is also, essentially, about a culture of forgetting, about that societal condition and its reward of retrogressions.
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According to Frantz Fanon, for a colonized people, the most essential value, because it is the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity. This idea, espoused in his book of commentary, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, is perhaps the underlying principle that bestows Fawaz’s aesthetic with a thematic essence, an essence which cannot be ignored, even by the most advantaged of the cosmopolitans.
To the cursory viewer, the photographer passes an affecting imagery; affecting, because the pictures taken, and their subjects therein, are predominantly explicit in their wretchedness. Their presences—transmitted from a space of familiarity—are not pretentious or vague. In an image, we even find a schoolboy dressing up for school after a morning’s toil, sacks of coal stacked high behind him as testament to the drudgery he shares with a labouring society.
However, for the critical viewer, it is the unconventional choice of Fawaz that begs the question of what sort of relationship exists between two actors at play – the wretched of the coal and the society of the wretched. Is this particular wretchedness we are faced with an illustration of what it means for a country to forget the coal? To ignore or undermine its historic glory as one of the plenty solid minerals lodged beneath the Nigerian earth, and capable of powering same, in both a literal and figurative sense?
For a nation, is dignity something to snatch from the passions of a moment, or is it a thing to reclaim from the corridors of a past? Is dignity a function of forgetting or not forgetting? Is forgetting a souvenir of the wretched, or the merely watching?
In the wake of memory, these are the questions that Fawaz throws to a people.
SEE COLLECTION: @lawalfawaz