Gallery Talks: Highlife, Nollywood and Nigerian dynamism inspires the work this artist exhibits with Nataal at New African Photography III

Ruth Ossai grew up in Southeastern Nigeria and is now based in West Yorkshire, UK. She is known for her portrait and studio photography that empowers Nigerian communities by creating narratives with her subjects that celebrate their personal identities. Ossai, who also works in youth development in the UK and across Africa,
recently collaborated with filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr on a special project for Kenzo, and has also shown at LagosPhoto. She now previews her latest series, a multimedia concept with fashion designer and recent Central Saint Martins’ graduate Mowalola Ogunlesi, at Labs.

HELEN JENNINGS: What was your route into photography?
RUTH OSSAI: I started snapping on my father’s BlackBerry, then on my own phone, and as a teenager my mother gave me a shoot-and-go camera. I wanted to photograph my life in Nigeria to show my other family in Yorkshire, and so would make lots of photo albums. The images were low quality but I still love this archive. Ever since then, I’ve been documenting life in Nigeria and Igbo identity. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve shared these images with a larger audience.

HJ: How do you approach your practice today?
RO: I think about collaborations and commissions in depth. Is it supportive of my culture and not just for profit? How is it building the communities I am part of? For my personal work I don’t have to compromise my art, values or myself, and over time I’ve been able to invest in a fully holistic approach. It’s important to be diligent in order to ensure you don’t lose your power, agency or autonomy.

HJ: How do you like to work with your subjects?
RO: I shoot my family and community members a lot. I want to show Nigerians as they are – how naturally beautiful they are with their own dynamism, style and sense of humour. They assert what they want to wear and how they want to pose, so there is no pressure and they can be true to themselves. In this way, their unapologetic sense of pride and confidence comes through in my photographs. It’s not only my self-expression but an expression of my subjects too.

HJ: Where do you find inspiration?
RO: I always look at Nigeria – and West Africa in general – through an artistic prism. I’m inspired by everyday life, Igbo music videos and homemade DVDs of special occasions. My use of backdrops is a reminder of the amazing special effects and scenes you see in Nollywood films. I also love setting up a studio in someone’s compound – we eat ebà and soup, listen to music and have fun. I like to get to know people first and then snap later, in that way I can include personal touches like props.

HJ: Describe your new project with Mowalola Ogunlesi.
RO: We wanted to shoot a highlife video in my community in Nsukka. We collaborated with the local band World Apostolate of Fatima, as well as Uncle Uche, who filmed it, and a group of youth dancers. The video and photo series it titled Nkata Anyi Abughi Otu (Our Discussion is Not the Same), which is a song about loyalty and intentions. We are making the photos into a book and we hope to show the whole project in London and Nigeria too. The beauty of photography is that it starts a dialogue about who we are, where we come from and where we are going.

Nataal: New African Photography III runs from 4 to 13 May at Red Hook Labs, 133 Imlay St, Brooklyn, NY, open 10am-6pm daily

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Published on 02/05/2018