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Behind a chartreuse veil, stitched with pearls of the same color, a woman gazes at the camera. Her gele, a signifier of her Nigerian heritage, is artfully wrapped around her head and stacks of beaded necklaces encircle her neck. Cast in chiaroscuro, the swath of saffron fabric over her shoulder catches the light. She’s vivid and regal, with an air of quiet mystery.
She’s a bride, and like the other women in Lakin Ogunbanwo’s series, “e wá wo mi” (2019), she’s resplendent in color. They look out behind veils of crimson, peach, and robin-egg blue, standing in front of draped fabrics in deep jewel tones.
“Any Nigerian who sees this (work) will recognize this is the mood of Nigerian weddings — the decorations, drapes, fabric,” Ogunbanwo, who is from Lagos, said. Through this series, which means “come look at me,” the photographer reflects on the nuance of identity — that of the brides and his home country. The exhibit was recently on view at the Whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town.
Weddings in Nigeria have swelled into a thriving industry, with massive guest lists and color-coordinated wedding parties.
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A wedding is “very loud, very grand, and it’s a huge celebration,” where families and communities come together, Ogunbanwo said. Often there are two ceremonies, one with more traditional attire and ceremonies, and another more akin to Western nuptials.
In the series, myriad tribes are represented — including the Igbo, Yoruba, Benin, and Hausa-Fulani communities — and together they paint a rich portrait of Nigerian heritage. “(I want) to take away from the idea of Africa as a monolith,” Ogunbanwo said.
“I find that when the world wants to talk about Africa it’s always Africa as one.” Photographers and artists have long treated the continent as a country, he said, but each country offers a culture distinctly its own.
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There is also nuance in wedding customs and attire. Igbo women have to identify their grooms among the crowd, while Benin men must recognize their brides in a parade of veiled women. Igbo brides wear ivory jewelry, while Yoruba women favor large gele head ties. Color can have significance too: Benin women wear oxblood-colored gowns to signify they are chaste, or not with child.
Despite these differences in ceremony, Ogunbanwo noted, “the expectations of the women are generally the same.”
Underneath the beauty of his series lies something weightier. In a culture, “where the burden of keeping the marriage together rests on (the bride),” Ogunbanwo said, the wedding day serves as a day of transformation for the bride. Some of the wedding-day rituals — like Yoruba women serving their new husbands food and drink — are indicative of the broader role they will step into as a wife and later as a mother.
Ogunbanwo points out that all of the ceremonial pomp reinforces an expectation of femininity, one that supersedes the brides’ individuality. And while the women in Ogunbanwo’s portraits are feminine, they are also self-possessed, idiosyncratic, and queenly. The photographer looked to Renaissance-era paintings of royal women for inspiration in mood, gesture, and lighting.
“But it was just a visual reference,” he clarified. “It’s not a political statement to those times or what blackness meant in those times.” Instead, he wanted to “co-opt that visual language” and employ it in celebration of these brides.
Like his earlier body of work, “Are We Good Enough” (2012-present), which focused on the distinctiveness of Nigerian headwear, “e wá wo mi” is ultimately a portrait of contemporary Nigerian culture and what makes it unique.
“I’ve found that when people want to engage with Africa or Nigeria they always want it to fit this specific kind of visual,” he said. “It has to be documentary or it has to be raw; it has to be unrefined in some capacity — I’m trying to stay away from that.”