Exploring Traditional Nigerian Hairstyles with Ojeikere
Ojheikere is regarded as one of the greatest 20th century African photographers, he earned international acclaim through his Hairstyle series; a personal project that he did for over 40 years showing Nigerian traditional hairstyles.
Born in 1930 in Ovbiomu-Emai, a rural village in Southwestern Nigeria, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere started a career in photography, at the age of twenty. It was really rare for Nigerians to work in photography at this time as cameras were not in high demand as they were considered a luxury. However, ‘Okhai Ojeikere was passionate about photography and in 1950 bought a modest Brownie D camera without flash, and had a neighbour teach him the rudiments of photography.
Documenting Nigerian culture
In 1967, he joined the Nigerian Arts Council. He travelled across Nigeria with the council and began to document Nigerian culture, beginning a series of photographs documenting Nigerian hairstyles in 1968. This was a hallmark of Ojeikere’s work and he had printed approximately a thousand pictures of different African women’s hair.
This body of work has become a unique anthropological, historic, ethnographic, and documentary national treasure.
Most African photographers of his generation only worked on commission; this project, unique in its genre, flourished without any commercial support. The Hairstyle series is the largest and the most thorough segment of Ojeikere’s archive.
African hairstyles are an art form
“To watch a ‘hair artist’ going through his precise gestures, like an artist making a sculpture, is fascinating. Hairstyles are an art form,” Ojeikere has commented.
From cornrows to hair threading, he photographed hairstyles every day in the street, in offices, at parties. He recorded each subject systematically: from the rear, sometimes in profile, and occasionally head-on. Those from the rear are almost abstract and best reveal the sculptural aspect of the hairstyles. For Ojeikere, this is a never-ending project as hairstyles evolve with fashion: “All these hairstyles are ephemeral. I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them. I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge. Art is life. Without art, life would be frozen.”
Nigerian Hairstyles and Hair Culture
The hairstyles Ojeikere presents range from being purely decorative to symbols with precise meanings. Some designs are paraded on social occasions or celebrations such as weddings or birthdays, whilst other styles are worn casually on a regular basis. Hairstyles can be reflective of social status and royalty may have unique family hairstyles passed down through generations. To Ojeikere, the hairstyles celebrate uniqueness and reflect the diversity of cultural traditions within Nigeria.
There are hundreds of ethnic groups in Nigeria, each with its own language, traditions and as many different hairstyles… The hairstyles are never exactly the same; each one has its own beauty… Some styles sometimes need more than a week of work.
To preserve the rich heritage, Ojeikere labels each photograph with the hairstyles place of origin, meaning, name and its history.
The beautifully composed black and white images draw attention to the sculptural quality of the hair, almost elevating it to an art form in itself.
Some of the hairstyle series have been exhibited worldwide, at the Met Museum in New York, in London in Southbank Centre some of these photographs can be brought at Gallerie Magnin in Paris.