New Photography 2023: MoMA’s celebrated exhibition series turns its focus to Lagos

Yagazie Emezi, Untitled, from #EndSARS Protests, 2020

Seven artists from West Africa are showcased in the latest iteration of the New York gallery’s annual show as it continues to explore local contemporary art scenes worldwide

The Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography series returns to New York next month, with the first of a number of exhibitions that will focus on local art scenes from across the globe. It is an attempt, says curator Oluremi Onabanjo, to figure the “crucial position” of photographic images within “global systems of relations”.

From 28 May to 16 September, New Photography 2023 will show work by seven artists with connections to West Africa: Kelani Abass, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Yagazie Emezi, Amanda Iheme, Abraham Oghobase, Karl Ohiri and Logo Oluwamuyiwa. It is one of the first exhibitions to engage with the work of living West African photographers, in effect to meet them where they are.

Logo Oluwamuyiwa, Oil Wonders II, from Monochrome Lagos, 2018
Karl Ohiri, Untitled, from The Archive of Becoming, 2015–ongoing

Some of the assembled artists, such as Akinbiyi, have been fixtures on the African photography landscape for decades, while Emezi has ascended rapidly over the past five years, from a self-taught photojournalist to sculptor and artistic associate of painter Kehinde Wiley. The selection maintains a cross-disciplinary focus, from Iheme’s studies of the built environment to the conceptually minded image-text compositions of Oghobase. The artists may differ in their approaches and preoccupations, but they are brought together on the basis of a shared commitment towards critical engagement with the past and present of Lagos (Èkó).

One of the most populous cities on the African continent, Lagos is also Nigeria’s creative capital: home to Arise Fashion Week and Art X Lagos, the first international art fair in West Africa, as well as galleries Kó Art Space and O’DA. In 1977, the city hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77, where over 17,000 artists from the Black diaspora gathered for the legendary event. New Photography curator Onabanjo last year edited a book on the subject, Last Day in Lagos, working with the photographer Marilyn Nance, who captured the festival proceedings.

Akinbode Akinbiyi, Bar Beach, Victoria Island, Lagos, from the series Sea Never Dry, 2006

“These works also suggest that it is not enough to visualise Lagos… The place must be felt too, its sensory overload reckoned with”

Amanda Iheme, Old Secretariat – Stagnation – 12, from The Way of Life, 2018

The artists are attuned to the question: How do you photograph something that won’t stay still? Their images capture Lagos in constant flux, where the hustle and effort of millions of people trying to eke out an existence thwart any desire for stillness or contemplation. The city as an ever-hungry beast; indefatigable.

Several photographs carry a sociological impulse. For example, Iheme’s image of Makoko, a floating settlement across the Third Mainland Bridge built on stilts inside Lagos Lagoon. Emezie’s images of the 2020 EndSARS protests are notable because she refuses to obey the separation of photographer from subject – she is on the streets, rejecting the passivity of observation. Photography itself becomes a form of protest.

These works also suggest that it is not enough to visualise Lagos; the city cannot be held in a neat frame. The place must be felt too, its sensory overload reckoned with: from the honking horns, the rising smoke, the brash call of strangers, men arguing, someone stealing food to the sound of money exchanging hands. All are transmuted in their rapturous intensity in this careful selection. 

New Photography 2023 delineates the myriad techniques artists use to capture the city, from the layering of archival photographs to create composite images, to pictures that take us into Lagos’ abandoned and neglected spaces. Images play a key role in the construction of the city – keeping its myths alive. To these artists, photography is not merely a recording of our surroundings, it is the means through which fragmented experiences are brought to light for collective understanding.

New Photography 2023 is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, from 28 May until 16 September