“I have always recognized photography as a means of evoking a powerful language which words cannot convey. I’m therefore interested in the medium as a form of self-expression.” Nigerian photographer and multimedia artist Charles Okereke moved to the capital of his home country right after his graduation from the University of Port-Harcourt just for that reason. “Lagos is recognized as the active, artistic and creative hub of Nigeria”, he explains. “I actually didn’t want to concern myself with reportage or documentary photography, but had a deep sense of the state of the environment in a mega city like Lagos and felt that I had the responsibility to use photography in a constructive way to make a positive contribution. So I opted for a use of metaphors as a personal way of expression.”To this day that’s what Charles is concerned with: creative conscious images that avoid the cliché of environmental photography that elevate the concerns to a dimension which is too ‘artistic’ in its representation.
Making an impact
It wasn’t an easy step for Charles though. He studied visual arts, majored in sculpturing, and his internship with a publication company gave him the opportunity to work in a darkroom in which he developed a sense for well-defined images which can be used as a veritable tool for mass awareness and information dissemination. “Together with a few colleagues, including Uche James Iroha, we started using photography in a different context by using our own bodies as subjects while exploring the technicalities of analogue photography.”
Right after his graduation however, he ventured into designing metal, wood and fiberglass sculptures and furniture. Although economically lucrative, it did not challenge his creative input. “Hence my move to Lagos,” he says. In this city he aims to identify himself as a Nigerian artist with one purpose: to make an impact on society using photography as a circular platform. He is motivated by being conscious of the needs of his environment and the responsibility to the overall development of his country.
Charles does not believe in the notion of representing his continent and country in a derogatory fashion, because life for him is about beauty. Even though it’s a hard environment to live and work in, as he says: “what is easily achieved in more developed countries can take years to accomplish in Africa, especially Nigeria.” He wants to transpose how outsiders view his country. “This is not an individual effort, but a collective responsibility. We have to create awareness, because there’s a lot of unconsciousness among the majority of people. I would like my work to be seen as an expression for a valid and candid representation of my country and Africa as a whole.”
There are a lot of colleagues that Charles admires for already doing so, like Uche Okpa Iroha with his Nlele Institute , Uche James Iroha with Photo Garage and Emeka Okereke’s Invisible Borders. He also mentions Photofest by Aida Muluneh as pushing the frontiers of photography, Ananias Leki Dago and Senegal’s Koyo Kouoh and Raw Material Company for promoting emerging artists.
Within this representation however, Charles does not back away from critiquing it’s own leaders and the west. According to him Africa has been the dump site for foreign waste; multinationals committing atrocities and destroying the productivity of a continent in which this far exceeds its consumption. “This creates ripple consequences which could be termed socio-political in their effect. Just like saying there is a rising economy in our continent when infrastructure and basic necessities haven’t even been provided to the majority yet. It’s a misrepresentation, a falsehood peddled by capitalists seeking investors to create a false hope in the place of despair. Rather, saying there is a rising economy is a delusion and for me as a photographer these are issues that I aim to expunge.”
Using photography as a platform Charles also wants to seek conscientious leadership amongst the youth, because that has been the bane of their existence for the new generation of Nigerians. Together with other arts, photography has luckily been fast accepted as a medium to value. “Yet more effort is needed in a thorough and proper education of the use of it as a veritable tool in appropriating and disseminating factual information which does not distort reality,” says Okereke.
“With my photography I try to create awareness by elevating the mundane, the ordinary and the discarded from the common place to a valuable state which thereby incites a discourse. Shooting the usual with an unusual approach which defamiliarizes the known to an artistic level which in its duality instructs and at the same time enchants.” The future for Charles is now and now is the time to create this future. For this reason he started the Alexander Academy of Art, Design and Alternative Methods, training young, talented Nigerians and other Africans in arts-related subjects and design. “They are the future and guiding them encourages me to put more effort in realizing my own objectives as well.”