LAGOS, Nigeria — When the Zimbabwean photographer and multimedia artist Kudzanai Chiurai decided to document the brief, turbulent history of a fictitious African country for his 2012 series “State of the Nation,” he turned to the past for inspiration.
“If you look from the 1960s, when a lot of African countries gained independence, there was a sense of hope and optimism and a new swagger that we were beginning to write our own destiny,” says the artist.
Within a decade, though, military coups, rigged elections and a string of broken promises turned that narrative on its head. Widespread disillusionment began to set in. “This image gradually changed from one that was celebratory to [seeing ourselves] in the newspapers and on television as these dysfunctional people,” says Chiurai.
That dominant image of strife and suffering, he says, still persists, in spite of the changing reality on the continent today. For Chiurai, those stereotypes only reinforce the need to “examine these things through different lenses.”
“We should constantly be interrogating those images … [and asking] how we can rewrite them,” he says.
Confronting those stereotypes has always been a driving force behind LagosPhoto, a monthlong celebration of photography that kicked off on Oct. 25, with the works of Chiurai and more than three dozen other artists on display in galleries and public spaces across the Nigerian metropolis.
Slideshow: Kudzanai Chiurai's "State of the Nation"
Since 2010, the festival has been a platform for photographers from across Africa and the rest of the world to “embrace multiple narratives that encapsulate the diversity of culture and realities on the continent,” according to Azu Nwagbogu, the event’s founder.
“There is an evolving cultural landscape within African cities which is little documented, unheralded and dismissed,” he says.
While past festivals have focused on documentary work, using snapshots of everyday life to present a vivid portrait of a changing Africa, this year’s edition, called “Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction,” showcases conceptual and performance-based work as a way to push the boundaries and force viewers to engage with Africa in fresh and unexpected ways.
“I have always argued that as Africans, we need to reimagine our tomorrow,” says Nwagbogu, who runs the nonprofit African Artists’ Foundation in Lagos.
It is perhaps an auspicious time for such self-reckoning; in many ways, African photography has never been so vibrant, or so visible, according to Bisi Silva, of Lagos’ Center for Contemporary Arts.
Silva points to the growing number of photo festivals across Africa — in Addis Ababa, Bamako and the small island nation of Cape Verde, among others — as evidence of increased interest across the continent. African photographers are receiving greater exposure, too, at events like dOCUMENTA, the contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, and the Venice Biennale, perhaps the world’s most prestigious showcase for contemporary art, where Angola last year won the coveted Golden Lion.
The Internet also offers a powerful medium to find a wider audience, with viral sensations like the Instagram account Everyday Africa — which includes snapshots from around the continent by both foreign and African photographers — making it possible to tell “multiple stories that reflect the complexity, the diversity and the depth of the African experience in the 21st century,” according to Silva.
Yet for many, shifting the conversation away from the dominant Afro-pessimist narrative remains a challenge.
“People understand … the continent through a specific prism that they’re familiar with,” says Chiurai. “[It] is the only starting narrative that they have, and will be the only narrative that they keep.”
Part of the problem exists at the local level, according to Silva, where individual photographers and collectives fail to achieve enough of a critical mass to make it “imperative for … international media channels to engage with them” in portraying a different vision of African life.
“How come we don’t have an organization like Magnum, for example, on the African continent — a photo agency that collects and collates images of Africa?” she asks.
Finding the funds to cultivate and support photographers is also a challenge, with cash-strapped governments across the continent disinclined to channel resources into the arts. Commercial prospects for photojournalists are slim; in Nigeria, wedding photography is a more attractive option for many aspiring photographers — a notion that Jide Odukoya toys with in “Turn It Up!”, his portraits of lavish Nigerian weddings, included in LagosPhoto this year.
Slideshow: Jide Odukoya's ‘Turn It Up!’
Expanding educational opportunities would also go a long way toward growing the reach of the medium. Master classes have been a fundamental part of the LagosPhoto initiative since its inception, and have included workshops with such iconic Nigerian photographers as Kelechi Amadi Obi, Akintunde Akinleye and George Osodi, as well as others from Europe and the United States.
For Nwagbogu, fostering a dialogue across countries and boundaries is an important part of LagosPhoto’s mission. With roughly half of this year’s exhibitors coming from outside of Africa and the diaspora, he says it was necessary to incorporate the works of “artists and photographers from every part of the globe who represented what we felt was the diversity of African sensibilities.
“What we have established, and are proud of, is a growing abundance of photo enthusiasts and artists and a platform where local and international artists can meet, engage in dialogue and share knowledge,” he says. “It is a platform that relates especially to showcasing a new way of negotiating African contemporary visual history and culture.”
Displacement is an integral part of the 21st-century African experience, and it has proven to be fertile ground for contemporary artists. The Nigerian photographer Abraham Oghobase, who frequently places himself in front of the camera, says it was his struggles with language during a residency in Berlin that forced him to look inward — inspiring the performance-based works of self-portraiture (“Untitled”) on display this month.
“For the first time, I started to turn the camera on myself,” he recalls.