Riccarda Mandrini: Every edition of LagosPhoto centres on a theme that engages complex cultural, political and economic issues able to define the new Africa. This year, the festival’s title is “Regimes of Truth” and it examines the search for and presentation of truth in contemporary society by drawing inspiration from the works of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers, writers and philosophers. But what is this truth?
Azu Nwagbogu: You know, there’s a duality about photography. We often associate images with the fact of something that is true, but the facts are not always the truth. The facts are the structures or props on which we establish truths. And we also assume that when you see an image it’s telling you something accurate and factual. So we want to explore all the various dynamics and tensions between the truth and the images that we see, what they aim to represent as true, what is real, what is not real, and how all these considerations can better illuminate and inform us about contemporary society. When words fail us we look at body language for the truth. We want to investigate all of these things, especially at a time when anybody can create images, and almost everyone has access to tools of communication. It’s a challenging time for the medium of photography in terms of showing, sharing and distributing images.
Riccarda Mandrini: In your opinion, which photographers or artists have been most effective at crystallising the new idea of Africans and Africa?
Azu Nwagbogu: It’s difficult to single out one individual, because every artist or photographer we’ve shown over the years has offered their own valid interpretation. Joana Choumali, Fabrice Monteiro, George Osodi, Viviane Sassen, Kadara Enyeasi, Muchiri Njenga, Abraham Oghobase, Fati Abubakar, Aisha Augie-Kuta… The list is practically endless.
Riccarda Mandrini: After seven editions of LagosPhoto, it could be a good time to take stock of the festival’s achievements. What do you consider a success and what would you change.
Azu Nwagbogu: It’s very important to look back and examine what you’re doing all the time. The festival’s greatest success is the community that we’re building. It takes time to do this, because everyone has to play a role in building a community of people who care. So it’s not about experts or famous names; it’s about people who care and who want to participate, and I think we’ve managed to accomplish that. Another important thing we’ve been able to do is help to change the way that we as a people think about ourselves. It’s a very powerful thing we’ve achieved. Thanks to our success, others can try different things because we share stories that are real and inspiring. As for the image of Africa perceived by the rest of the world, it’s obvious that we’ll have to carry on challenging the dominant narrative by continuing to do what we do. That said, however, more than challenging that narrative, it’s a question of telling our own stories about an Africa with people who have agency for their own future.
Riccarda Mandrini: You’ve reached many goals with your work over the years…
Azu Nwagbogu: It would be really good if we had more time to get extra support. We’re also involved with the African Art Foundation, with whom we’ve been organising an African art competition every year for the last nine years. So this is the tenth year. Regarding the LagosPhoto Festival, we aspire to gain greater access to public spaces and also have the possibility to organise more exhibitions to present to a wider community.
Riccarda Mandrini: In terms of engaging a wider community, have you considered moving LagosPhoto to another Nigerian town, now that the festival is so well established? Such an event could boost the economy of a small town, and it could create an opportunity for local people to be part of the community you’re constructing.
Azu Nwagbogu: We’re working in this direction, too. We’re always seeking new audiences and we’re keen to let the exhibition travel to other places. We’ve staged exhibitions in other cities where the public don’t really engage with art, so we’re very concerned about reaching out to people who can benefit the most. In the last three years we’ve done shows in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. We’re very engaged in this sense, but in order to do it, first of all we have to build up our logistics, and this takes time. But I’m very keen on taking our work to more remote areas.
Riccarda Mandrini: The architect Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso once told me that in Africa, when you want to communicate something that is important to you, often you tell a story. With LagosPhoto you have told many stories. Which is the one you like the most?
Azu Nwagbogu: When we started the festival, many people thought it was going to be for the more elite people in society. But I discovered that the people who were most touched, moved or inspired were people like street vendors, taxi drivers, and so on. Lots of them took their families to the show. I love this aspect of the festival. In Nigeria there aren’t enough opportunities or spaces for people to share, agree or disagree, and have a debate and proper discussions about contemporary issues. Exhibition spaces provide a safe context for social discourse.
Riccarda Mandrini: To attract interest from a wide range of people, LagosPhoto has also conceived the dedicated “Large Scale Outdoor Exhibitions” project, which involves a series of images displayed in congested public areas, so they can be seen from cars and by people walking along the street.
Azu Nwagbogu: Each outdoor exhibition is carefully curated with an awareness of the audience it is intended to serve. For example, there are spaces in close proximity to schools, so we think of the spaces as we curate the exhibitions.
Riccarda Mandrini: What remains when the festival is over, in a psychological and physical sense?
Azu Nwagbogu: Apart from a lot of emotions for me and my team, what remains is the memory, and memory is something that you can’t deny anyone. The memory of it stays with everybody. People remember where they were, what they saw. What we create is a memory, and that is forever.