Festivals Of Nigeria, a stunning coffee table book by Victor Politis, features ten festivals and ceremonies, photographed over five years. From the Opobo regatta in the South to Argungu in the North, the book reveals a nation unified in a desire to celebrate, whatever the challenges of everyday life.
Interview Jahman Anikulapo • Photography Victor Politis
FEAST OF LIFE
In mid-2007, during a meeting in Lagos, businessman Victor Politis couldn’t help but look at a painting on the wall. It was of hundreds, or maybe thousands of men, immersed in muddy-looking water. The painting reminded him of photos of the holy river Ganga in Northern India where thousands of pilgrims visit once a year to bathe.
It turned out that the painting was a famous scene at the annual Argungu fishing festival, in Kebi State. Victor knew immediately that he had to travel to Argungu. He made arrangements to fly to Sokoto, thus planting the seed for his second photography book, Festivals of Nigeria (Voyager Media).
In it, Victor goes beyond the call of duty, to partake of the feast of life. Starting with Argungu, he goes on to photograph festivals, durbars and ceremonies in Badagry, Bauchi, Benin, Calabar, Kano, Lagos, Onitsha and Opobo.
Each image bursts with passion and deeply-revered beliefs. These are photos that go beyond the usual tourist approach, merely portraying subjects as objects of fascination for the viewer. Tactfully drawing the viewer into the lives of his subjects, Victor exposes the eclectic and communal world of the celebrants – where beliefs and convictions reign supreme.
Looking beyond the attractive images, Festivals of Nigeria can be seen as a rallying cry, impressing on the conscience of the governments of Nigeria (at all levels) to up their game.
This book sends a critical and crucial reminder of the vast cauldron of opportunity available in Nigeria’s various cultural festivals to boost earning and earn respect for Nigeria as a tourist destination.
It will take the visionary leadership of the Tourism and Culture Ministry to dig into the rich treasure trove that festivals represent for the country’s cultural and national wealth.
In contrast to your first book (Nigeria, Through the Eyes of a Passerby) which candidly captures street life, you seem to have shifted direction from socially conscious photography to cultural reflection. Is that a fair assessment?
I questioned and, in some ways, still do, my choice of direction for this book. I long wished that someone else would publish a book about festivals. In the end I decided to focus on a testimonial to the spirit of Nigerians. This book only begins to touch on the pride of the Nigerian people in their culture, and their personal investment in celebrating it.
In a way, festivals can be deemed elitist. What do you think?
You are right, especially when the festival revolves around a traditional ruler and his entourage. But I must say that after attending a dozen events, it is very clear to me that the “ordinary” people in each locale, are very much involved. I can give you many examples: the thousands of fishermen in Argungu, the market women in Badagry, the hard-working and mostly poor men who dress up and ride in the durbars, the residents of run-down compounds in Opobo who work hard to compete in the regatta, kids from poor families in Cross River who create their costumes from recycled materials, and the masses that descend on Osogbo.
What is the overriding objective of this particular project?
I have been carrying my copy of the book on my travels. I have shown it to friends and acquaintances in London, Geneva, Zurich, Istanbul, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York. The reaction has been almost identical. It’s of surprise and disbelief: “All of these things happen in Nigeria? Really? I had no idea! Wow, beautiful!”— that kind of reaction was the overriding objective.
Was there a specific aspect of this project that personally affected you?
I spoke with many participants at the festivals. I learned that – with rare exceptions – each participant is responsible for their own costs, including costume, food, and transportation. In Osogbo and Badagry, as well as in Onitsha, I observed groups of dancers hoping to collect small amounts from the chiefs to compensate, for their effort and expense. Witnessing the lengths that the average participant makes has resonated with me.
The volume of financial and human energy committed to this project is unimaginable. What are your expectations?
I am happy that the book is printed. I hope that the people who carry it as a gift or to their home abroad will have a positive reaction. I also hope that a few Nigerians who see the book are motivated to travel in their home country. In the future, domestic tourism will prove to be a very important element of peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups in Nigeria.
In your interaction with communities — away from the elite urban centres — what is your overall impression of the people of Nigeria?
It’s multi-faceted. They are hospitable, generous, protective, hungry, tired, and fed up with the layers of “authority.” By and large, they also seem ready to laugh and be positive.
You mentioned that you encountered a unity of vision at many of the festivals. Do you see that permeating the larger social relationships in the country?
While the potential is definitely there, unfortunately I do not see it happening until leaders begin to care about the masses; the people that really count.
What are the plans for distribution of the book?
There are stores in Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt that carry it and it’s available to ship to Europe and North America.
Is this a finished project, or the start of a series?
I have no idea yet. I would like to spend more time in villages and to meet people in an environment where interpersonal relations are developed face-to-face rather than on Facebook.
What is your contention about the state of photography in the Nigerian cultural space?
It’s moving slowly. The brilliant Nigerian photographers are standing firm by their principles, so the space stands to see explosive growth. It takes time, but with the likes of George Osodi and several others, it is inevitable.
What do you see as factors affecting the growth of photography?
We need to see more published work, well-curated thematic exhibitions and more investment by known Nigerian and expatriate art collectors in quality limited-edition prints.
Exposure to documentary photography from different places may be the second best thing after travel. It shows the common aspirations, needs, hopes and pleasures of people everywhere, as well as their pain.
What are the gains and losses of this vocation to you, personally, and as a businessman?
There are only gains. I put both sides of my brain to work, interact with people, learn from them, and share my experience and expertise with them.
‘Festivals of Nigeria’ is available to purchase at stores in Nigeria, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org