Interview with curator Joseph Gergel LagosPhoto Festival 2014

Neighborhood 3, from In-Glorious series. 2009 - Photo-Musa N. Nxumalo
Neighborhood 3, from In-Glorious series. 2009 - Photo-Musa N. Nxumalo | Photo: Musa N. Nxumalo

LagosPhoto Festival has grown exponentially. Curator Joseph Gergel talks to Joburg Art Fair about this year’s festival theme “Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction”, about representation and African photography.

Joburg Art Fair: From The Megacity and the Non-city, where will the LagosPhotoFestival take us in 2014?

Joseph Gergel: Last year, our theme explored how artists examine our sense of place in a globally connected world, influenced both by vast changes taking place in developing urban centers in Africa as well as virtual technologies that are creating new paradigms.

We were interested in how many artists working in Africa today were defining “place” not within the traditional confines of a specific geographic realm, but in the dialogue between the local and the global. In this manner, we presented many artists who work outside of documentary photography and adopt conceptual and performative image-based practices.

This year, we wish to expand on this with our theme "Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction". With an even more specific focus on performance, we are interested in artists who create staged documentaries, fictional narratives, and that toe the line between photography’s ambiguous relationship with truth. If an exploration of “place” was a central thread between artists last year, this year we wish to explore temporal concerns, where artists mine the archives of the past and imagine different futures. Many artists we will present this year have collaborated with local communities to enact theatrical productions, sparking rich collaboration between photographers and their subject.

JAF: In the past five years, LagosPhoto has grown exponentially, branching out into educational programmes, international exchanges and new partnerships. How has this development affected the Nigerian arts landscape and where do you hope to take it?
Joseph Gergel: The LagosPhoto platform includes exhibitions, workshops, master classes, artist presentations, panel discussions, screenings, and outdoor installations in congested public spaces in Lagos throughout the month-long duration of the festival. Each year, its affiliated programmes grow and provide more opportunities for artists in the country. LagosPhoto is, most importantly, an educational initiative, aiming to fill the gap in opportunities for the growth of the next generation of photographers. We offer courses for beginners, advanced technique, and portfolio reviews during the festival. In January 2014, we began a new program entitled Youth Empowerment Through Contemporary Art, which targets youths in secondary public schools in Lagos and offers courses in visual art and photography throughout the year. This project will filter into the festival in October.

Internationally, we have partnered with World Press Photo and the POPCAP Competition of Contemporary African Photography to exhibit their projects alongside the festival, which allows the work of many internationally renowned photographers to be shown in Nigeria for the first time. Last year, we also began a series of international exchanges, first with the LagosPhoto Summer School program, which brought emerging Nigerian photographers to Berlin to study and German photographers to Lagos to execute projects, and then with our FOTObook project, which brought Dutch art book specialists to Lagos to lead master workshops on book publication and design. We were also honored to host Goethe-Institut South Africa’s Photographers’ Portfolio Meeting, which brought young photographers from around the continent to Lagos during the opening week of the festival. With our two guests of honor, Martin Parr and Samuel Fosso, emerging photographers were also able to get advice and feedback from some of the most important figures in the international photography community.

This year, we look forward to collaborating with the Archive of Modern Conflict, an arts publisher based in the UK, that are working on some very exciting projects with vernacular and historical photography to be presented alongside the festival.

JAF: In your article published on Artbaseafrica on 13 February 2014, you talk about global perception and a certain lack of understanding of the African arts environment. Where do you think the shortfalls are in terms of the representation of African art and the broader global conversation? What possible solutions do you think there are to tackle this?

Joseph Gergel: When LagosPhoto first began in 2010, a driving curatorial aim was to counter the mis-representation of Africa that is portrayed through the Western media and a particular kind of photojournalistic gaze, and to tell stories that were more hidden and that spoke to the culture and diversity of the continent. This was a very important step in how the festival found its voice, as the photographic image plays a major role in how the world constructs their understanding of Africa.

Now that we are moving into our fifth year of the festival, I find it refreshing that we no longer need to have this debate and define photography on the continent based on what it is not. Instead, we look positively to define what African photography is becoming, which is on par with photography communities around the world. I think it is important to show photography as an expanded practice, not only documenting the realities on the ground but also using the medium to address conceptual concerns. I also think it is important not to limit the festival to artists of African geographic origin, but to include a diverse group of both local and international artists. Last year, we included 50 artists spanning 15 countries. In doing this, cross-cultural dialogue is beneficial to both parties to better understand each other’s work.

JAF: What role do you see fairs such as the FNB Joburg Art Fair playing in this?

Joseph Gergel: Last year was my first experience at the Joburg Art Fair, and it was a great opportunity not only to show LagosPhoto to an international audience, but also in the connections we made there with other like-minded organizations working in Africa. As interest in African photography is growing exponentially in the international art world, it is important that African arts organizations collaborate and start dialogue between different parts of the continent. We also discovered new artists that will now participate in the festival this year. As a non-profit organization, it is difficult for LagosPhoto to participate in art fairs due to the high costs. The JoBurg Art Fair has created a platform that makes room for initiatives such as ours to be seen and heard.

Joseph Gergel is a head curator at the African Artists’ Foundation and a co-curator at the LagosPhoto Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. Gergel received his Masters degree in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University, and his Bachelors degree in Photography and the Philosophy of Images from New York University. Prior to working in Lagos, Gergel assisted in the curatorial departments at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Goethe-Institut initiated the Photographer’s Master Class in 2008 as a forum for emerging African photographers to meet with curators from the continent and further afield. The workshop as a closed portfolio reading has since been taking place annually.
This long-term project is designed to encourage professional engagement between curators and photographers, enable networking across the region and encourage critical discourse around photography as practice. The workshop always coincides with a major art or photography event on the continent, which provides a further framework for engagement and exposure.

This year it coincides with the FNB Joburg Art Fair, where the Goethe-Institut presents Peregrinate, an exhibition with work by South Africans Thabiso Sekgala and Musa Nxumalo, and Kenyan Mimi Cherono Ng’ok as well as the book launch of Just Ask!, a reflection of contemporary African photography. Both the exhibition and the book are results of the Photographer’s Master Class.

In 2014, the Photographer’s Master Class hosts Akinbode Akinbiyi, Frédérique Chapuis, John Fleetwoood, Simon Njami and Katrin Peters-Klaphake, and twelve emerging photographers from Cameroon, DRC, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Uganda.

This interview was first published by Artlogic and his republished here with kind permission.