It’s been two years since leading contemporary Nigerian photographer, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko had her last solo, Ìtàn, which opened up to rave reviews. I spoke briefly with her before the show. Here are excerpts from our conversation first published by Revilo in the accompanying catalogue in 2012.
Oliver Enwonwu: So who is Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko?
Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko: First she is a mother, then an artist and then she is bi-national and tries hard to combine the best from the two nationalities.
Where do you live and work?
I live and work in Lagos.
You grew up and were trained in Germany, right?
Do memories from your childhood play an important role in your art?
Oh yes, they do. I was a very imaginative and creative child. I read a lot of fantasy and mystifying stories like J.R.R. Tokien’s, Lord of the Rings and The Mists of Avalon, and The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley. They still reflect a lot in my work.
You were born to a German mother and a Nigerian father, does identity form a crucial part of your oeuvre?
I don’t have a problem with it. People always ask, which country do you love more, or what side do you appreciate more? It’s not about making a decision. I just put a full stop by emphasizing that I am who I am.
The influence of African mythology and story-telling is strong in your work, why?
I came back to Nigeria and Lagos for the first time in 2003. I also travelled a lot to the hinterlands including Owo and my village, Ayede in Ekiti State. I realized that though my relatives were staunch Christians, always had their Bibles with them and went to church every Sunday, there was always a factor of mythology somewhere – beliefs in other spiritual powers apart from God. For them, it seemed totally natural, but for me coming from Germany, it was church and just one God. Other deities were not allowed.
The Nigerians did not distinguish, or were not allowed to separate. They grew up with these things together. Somehow, they mingled it fantastically and it worked for them. And of course, I wanted to know more about the gods and more about their native beliefs. They kept on telling me about the babalawos, evil spirits and some evil doings going on between families and family members. Nobody trusted each other, and that’s why I started asking more questions. Of course, they answered, “We know that it is wrong to believe in other gods besides the main God, but that is how it works in Nigeria.”
Why did you decide to travel to your village?
I wanted to discover where I am coming from, I wanted to discover my roots. That was the main reason; all my life I was used to only my parents. I didn’t get to know my uncles, aunts and cousins, and so it was useful.
How did it feel listening to these people, was it a rude shock?
No, because I was coming from an atheistic background. I did not feel negatively or insulted. At first it was funny for me, that these things can be mixed like that, and then it became curious.
We were brought up not to believe in greater powers, and that you can’t make somebody lucky if you give him alligator pepper soup. It was just very interesting for me as an outsider, to watch all these on-goings. I don’t want to say hilarious but I would say amusing, yet I still respect these other beliefs.
Can you tell us a bit more about your atheistic background?
I won’t say officially atheistic; it is my mum and not my father. My father is Yoruba and of course, he was very religious. My mother is the opposite of that.
What attracted you to photography?
I wanted to be a graphic artist, but I became a photographer by chance. At school I discovered photography and went for workshops. I think this is why some of my images look like paintings.
Photography is like an extension of my drawings. I think I have a small talent in drawing. As a photographer, you should be able to at least sketch. I wanted to become a graphic artist, so I applied in several advertising agencies but ended up in photography.
Was this after school?
No, in Germany there is something you do. It’s not quite like an apprenticeship. You do it and at the same time you are allowed to go to school. Perhaps a photography school for two or three days a week; the other days you work in an office, so you practicalize everything you learn in theory.
So you worked in an office, and the same time went to school?
Yes, in a company. It was called Studio BE.
You started out taking portraits, did you train, and had you already gone to art school?
It was advertising, which I had already studied in Germany. I wasn’t skilled at taking portraits; I was more into advertising, pictorial photography and product shots. That is where I learnt lighting to the core; lighting, theme lights and so on. I still highly appreciate it, because when you do advertising photography, it gives you the foundation to do everything. You can then go into fashion, portraits or something else.
When did African mythology start featuring in your work?
Around 2010, because when I came back, I first set up Camara Studios in 2007. It is a professional photo studio and all my energy went into setting it up. I went into fine art photography and exhibitions later.
I want you to describe Camara Studios. How many photographers work for you?
Camara Studios has two photographers, a photo editor and receptionist.
What do you specialize in?
We specialize in advertising, portrait, editorial and event photography.
What does Ìtàn mean?
Ìtàn means story in Yoruba. It can also mean the process of telling stories.
What was the inspiration behind the title?
Yeah, as I was looking at the pictures, I said to myself, this body of work could be used as illustrations in storybooks for children and grown-ups. All the books that I have read so far about our gods are usually picture-less or have minimal illustrations.
What is the underlying philosophy behind your work?
Photography is used to document facts, but with this exhibition, I want to tell stories. I want the spectator to be taken back into a Nigerian folk story and be reminded of our deities. I have always been fascinated by Nigerian gods and goddesses, and I want to use photography to make them come to life.
Can you give a brief description of your work flow?
As you can see my works are pretty elaborate so I need a lot of planning. I read a lot of stories. I choose the character and my imagination starts spinning. I choose the models, discuss about costumes with the stylist, then call a make-up artist and hair stylist. The preparations usually take longer than the shoot itself.
Do you also address socio-political issues?
No. If I address anything, it is religion. I don’t want to criticize anything. I just narrate and explain. I think I just want to construct a visual. It’s not that I think Nigerians have forgotten where they are coming from, it’s just that I think it’s nice to give them some of these things like a reminder of mami wata. It’s true that we have been discussing them in paintings, but I don’t think they have been discussed in photographic format. It is not quite a discrepancy. It’s just something I have been observing and theoretically wish to engage in my work, but I will not put myself on either side.
How do you select your subject?
First there is the idea, then there is the image that is coming up in my head. For instance, there are specific descriptions of mami wata; like her fair skin and soft hair. She is always with a snake and comb in her hair. That is more than enough to trigger one’s imagination.
Most of your models are female, why?
I have been asking myself the same question. There are some male models that I work with. There is however, something about women in mythology. For me, women are more mystifying. They are more scary. Where a man is very straight forward, a woman always has different layers. I would also say the woman defends tradition more.
On what grounds?
It is not a secret that it is the woman’s responsibility to take care of the religious upbringing of the children.
How do you decide on where to do a photo shoot?
Actually, we did all the shots in my studio. The technique or the set that I use for a photo shoot involves using a different background behind the subject. It is quite interesting. I am a defender of using Photoshop as lightly as possible. I like my pictures to look real. I think it’s just one or two shots so far that were done on location like Mami Wata. I knew we needed a lot of water so we went to the beach. For Osun, we went into a pool, and then the rest we did in the studio.
We live in a conservative society and most Nigerians are skeptical about works concerned with contemporary issues. Does this impact on your stylistic direction?
No, because I don’t choose my topics by looking around the environment. Right now, we already have so many images of the Makoko slums and Lagos underbellies. That is why I found it important to tackle our story from another perspective. I just think that there should be a balance.
Why are most of your works in black and white?
The absence of colour makes the image speak louder. There is something about black and white images that just narrows the message down to the heart of it. I also see black and white images as timeless; just as we are talking about gods who are always there and never go away.
Some of your works like Zebra have disturbing graphics. Is there an academic philosophy behind them?
Its fantasy, its from my imagination. There is evil, it will always be there. There is also life and death. You can’t talk about mystery and mythology without talking about the evil spirits. So what makes telling stories interesting is the contrast between good and bad. This is what makes the story complete. I also want people to feel something when they look at the pictures.
What is the inspiration behind the photograph, Mami Wata?
When I was very young, growing up in Enugu…..
I thought you were born in Germany?
No, I was born in Enugu and when I was five, we moved to Germany. I was called mami wata because of my light skin. I thought it was an Igbo thing, but about 2 years ago when I travelled to my husband’s town, Kabba in Kogi State, he and my mother in-law told me the story about a mami wata. She was the most beautiful woman ever in that town. She had light skin and long soft hair. When she died, all the wells dried up and there was no water in town. It was the seriousness in their story-telling that captivated me most. A deeply rooted belief that could not be attacked from any angle.
Do you believe it?
You have been involved in some charitable work, can you share some of these experiences with us, and your thoughts on how art can contribute in changing society?
Yes, it’s always very fulfilling. Charitable work for me is educating and sharing my experiences as a photographer with other people. I have done with this X-Perspective, where I taught a group of women photography. I tried to help them get them to the next level by staging exhibitions. I think after a couple of years in the business, it’s something that every photographer should do.
The other part of the question; How can art help to change the society? For me, the breast cancer project that we have started is a good example, but we haven’t come to the finish line yet. We are using photography to document and to educate because there is a lot of ignorance about breast cancer. We want to use photography as a medium to change society by making women who have breast cancer come out and stop hiding themselves.
I wish for photography as an art to become a change agent. I also wish for photography to take some shyness away. For instance, the nude exhibition that we did in 2008 at Goethe Institut, Body Landscapes also changed the views of the Nigerian society. It widened the horizon of people about photography and what it can do. Before photography was just about come to cover my event or sit down, smile and I will take your picture.
What is the background of the women?
The women are from different fields. Last year, there were beginners to semi-professionals. Now they are all earning money with their photography. It was like an empowerment scheme.
Which artists do you admire, both globally and in Nigeria?
Annie Leibowitz, I like her not because she is female but also because of her set-ups. For her, photography is not just about taking pictures, it’s the whole thing around it – the costumes, models and all that. Coming to Nigeria, I like Peju Alatise.
You started out with advertising photography, what was responsible for the change in artistic direction?
As a photographer, I set up a studio and I did a lot of commercial jobs. That is where I make my money from. I strike a balance between what people expect from me and what I like to do. But it’s not really a change, because you still see fashion and advertising photography in my art. They are still there, I guess I can’t erase it. It shows that I am active and creative.
It is common today to see many photographers supporting themselves by covering events like weddings. In your own case, you photograph for the advertising industry. How does this impact on the integrity of your art, and how have you been able to deal with such economic realities?
Even when I am covering a wedding, I am still doing a work of art because people still want me to put my signature style in it. They want me to take their weddings to the next level, to portray their weddings in a way that nobody else would. So it is something highly artistic to lift something as ordinary as a wedding to something extraordinary. It is something very challenging.
As a female artist working in Nigeria, what pressures do you face?
I wouldn’t directly put an exclamation mark on female. I still think that whether male or female, your work is what speaks for you. I want to believe that nobody really discriminates. So I think at this level, we are all the same, male or female.
But a female photographer may find it difficult to take nude pictures or pursue a career with a husband expecting you to come home and make lunch.
On one hand, there are some things like children and family that could make your life a bit more complicated. But you must carve out your way. You have your life and so you construct around it. On the other hand, I think it was a bit of an advantage being a female photographer in Nigeria, because you stand out. I don’t sit down and start whining that I am female; that is on the politics side! What people expect of you is not higher or lower than what they expect of a male photographer.
Growing up, did your family support you?
My parents were highly supportive. Their attitude was; If you want to be a taxi driver, be the best you can be. We were raised in Germany and not Nigeria where you would have wasted all your parent’s money if you did not study law or medicine. In Germany, photography is a well re-cognized profession. If my parent’s had any reservations, they didn’t show it. In my last year studying photography, they finally gave me a car. I remember that very fondly.
What advice do you have for young people, including your children, who would like to take after you?
I have always told young people who want to go into photography to have something else as a back up, because you need to be able to support yourself.
Photography is a very practical profession. I would give my children everything they want but encourage them to study something else like business administration so that they can run a business, or graphic design to learn how to run a magazine. You have to add something to it, especially when one is young and has time. I set up a business with a baby on my hands. I taught myself everything in business administration.