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.
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.”
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.
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.