Sharon Stone in Abuja, Nollywood in New York

I am very much behind in posting photos of my columns here. I’m hoping to catch up in the next few days. I had hoped to get this up before Zina Saro-Wiwa’s “Sharon Stone in Abuja” gallery show at Location 1 in New York ended on 22 January 2011, but I obviously didn’t…. Here is my column, “Sharon Stone in Abuja, Nollywood in New York,” published in the Weekly Trust on 11 December 2010.

To read the article in its original version, click on the photo below. It will take you to a large photo on Flickr that you should be able to read comfortably. Enjoy.

Nigeria’s educated elite have a fraught relationship with Nollywood. Nigeria’s film industry may be identified by UNESCO as the second largest film industry in the world but talk to many Nigerians abroad, and they find the films embarrassing in their departure from Hollywood aesthetic norms or the theory-driven ideology of much European and African cinema. Recently while I was back in New York on a quick visit, several Nigerian artists at a dinner party told me they “hated” the films, finding them “unrealistic and excessive.” I’ve received similar feedback in emails responding to this column, one reader remarking that Kannywood films “are poor in artistic quality and lack originality.”

Yet, for every Nollywood snob you come across, there are dozens of avid fans who may laugh a little at the melodrama and the low budget quality of the films, but who love them all the same. What is it in these films that draws an audience of millions? This is one of the questions asked in the art exhibition “Sharon Stone in Abuja,” named after the 2003 Nigerian movie of the same name, on display from November 5, 2010 to January 22, 2011, at the New York gallery, Location 1. Notes on the exhibit, which is co-curated by Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, point to the “power and energy in these films, […]  Through our visual narratives, we hope to reveal the psychodrama of Nigerian life beneath Nollywood’s breathless and voluble hyperbole, […] and to explore the power in the home grown amateur aesthetics that Nollywood presents.”  The gallery features the work of Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo, American portraitist Mickalene Thomas, South African photographer Pieter Hugo, Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, and three experimental film installations by Zina Saro-Wiwa.

During my brief New York trip, I walked into the gallery forty-five minutes before closing time, so what I write here will be more a first impression than a studied review. The exhibit invites a self-conscious reflection on the creation of Nollywood art, audience, and fame. One of my favourite pieces is a large strikingly intimate portrait, by James Esiebo, of Nollywood stars Aki and Pawpaw, displayed in the corridor across from a wall inscribed with the names of thousands of Nollywood films. At the end of a corridor, the gallery opens up into parlour space created to set off Mickalene Thomas’s portraits of Nigerian actresses. On pedestals are “video sculptures,” looping Saro-Wiwa’s twenty minute segments of Nigerian actresses staring into the camera while crying.

The parlour space was carefully arranged into a kind of anthropological display of how Nigerian audiences watch films, using couches and chairs that could be found in many Nigerian homes, end tables piled with stacks of vcds. The only bizaare note in the room were the zebra-striped and leopard print throw pillows, reminding the visitor that this was not a home in Nigeria but a gallery in New York, where animal print is often the easiest visual shorthand for Africa. Nollywood may be the creation of Nigerians, the set up of the parlour implies, but it is received and reinterpreted by audiences all over the world.

These ideas of representation, authenticity, and appropriation are particularly evident in several of South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s photographs, taken from his Nollywood series, that hang on the wall opposite the parlour. I dislike Hugo’s work. The photographs in this show, the most striking one of which shows a woman dressed in lace sitting beside a man in monster makeup, take elements of Nollywood horror films out of context and flatten them into the blank stares of a freak show. While technically quite beautifully composed and lit, his photographs remind me of early 19th century exhibitions of the “Hottentot Venus,” in which a naked Khoi woman with large buttocks was put on display for the “scientific examination” and titillation of European audiences. They also remind me of the portrayal of Nigerians as savage gangsters in Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9. As with the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Nollywood becomes the not-so-blank slate onto which these artists project their own psychological hang-ups. Nigeria through a South African lens reveals more South African stereotype of Nigeria than anything else. This is not Nollywood, or Nigeria, but perhaps it is what an outside audience wants to see.

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s short films Phyllis and The Deliverance of Comfort, which for me were the heart of the exhibition, had a similarity to Hugo’s work in their artistic appropriation of Nollywood. But there is an affection and intimacy to them, I also felt in Andrew Esiebo’s portraits of Nollywood stars, that was lacking in Hugo’s photographs. Saro-Wiwa’s art films, likely to be watched and appreciated by a much smaller audience than those who watch the Nollywood films to which she pays homage, make a profound intervention into intellectual discussions of Nigerian film. Of the two short films, I was most struck by Phyllis, a surreal portrayal of a day in the life of Phyllis, a woman who watches Nollywood films all day long in an apartment filled with Christian calenders and Nollywood posters, marking time by changing into multicoloured European wigs. Whenever she removes a wig to replace it with another, her eyes roll back into her head, indicating spiritual possession. The techno heartbeat soundtrack played in these moments reminded me of similar sounds indicating spiritual presence in Cameroonian filmmaker Jean Pierre Bekolo’s science fiction film Les Saignantes, which won the Silver Yennenga  Stallion award at the 2007 FESPACO film festival. In Les Saignantes, the director’s voiceover, asking self conscious questions about filmmaking in postcolonial Africa, structures into sections a bizaare tale of two Cameroonian prostitutes and their use of spiritual powers to appropriate the body of a powerful government official. Both Les Saignantes and Phyllis interact with the popular imagination of spiritual power, linking it to ideas on the communicative power of film.

In Saro-Wiwa’s film, Phyllis, who has seen herself appear on screen, goes out into the streets of Lagos, hawking her multicoloured wigs on a tray. She lures another woman into her possession cult when the woman strokes the hair of the wig and then tries it on. Phyllis grips the woman in a vise as the initiate’s eyes roll back into her head, and then releases her to wander off dreamy-eyed. At the end Phyllis returns to her apartment, changing her wig again, and sits under a clock of a white Jesus with outstretched arms. She laughs while crying tears of blood.

There’s too much to untangle here in a short review. But in the visual metaphors of wigs and reoccurring motifs of Christian paraphernalia, Saro-Wiwa seems to be making a critique similar to those who complain of cultural imperialism in Nollywood’s unthoughtful adoption of Western standards of beauty and who question the Christian solutions so often proffered in the films. What are we being possessed by? Saro-Wiwa asks. One reading of the film could be that both Christianity and movies are the “opiate of the masses.” Yet Saro-Wiwa’s critique is far more sophisticated than most, affectionately acknowledging its own creative inspiration as dependent on Nollywood. As with Bekolo’s film, for Saro-Wiwa, ritual becomes metaphoric for possibilities in film that, while at times quite harmful, seem to offer particular power to women.

It is just this sort of thoughtful engagement that is needed in intellectual discussions of the world’s second largest film industry. Nevertheless, the exhibition may be flawed by its over-reliance on a Western audience. I would be interested in seeing the same exhibition brought to Lagos and Abuja and hearing what a non-expatriate Nigerian audience would make of its tropes of alienation and self-representation.

UPDATE 15 March 2011:

I just came across another great review of Pieter Hugo’s photographs here at Isaac Anyaogu’s blog Nollyverse.

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One response to “Sharon Stone in Abuja, Nollywood in New York

  1. Isaac Anyaogu

    I couldn’t agree more

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