The Enduring Influence of Photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere
The Nigerian's work remains a touchstone for contemporary photographers—as well as hair salons.
J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Onile Gogoro Or Akaba, via instagram.com/hobrobert
Long before Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere ever produced an actual photograph, he wanted to capture the beauty of his native Nigeria. In 1950, at the age of twenty, the young Lagosian purchased a Kodak Brownie, began taking photography lessons from a friend, and started snapping photos of the world around him. By the time he passed away in 2014, the chronicler of Nigerian life now known as J.D. Okhai Ojeikere had amassed more than 10,000 photos of his country, from its architecture to its fashion, headgear, and perhaps most notably, its hairstyles.
Parted, braided, stretched, twisted, and puffed, Ojeikere saw artistry in the ever-changing coiffures of Nigerian women. In 1968, he began producing the photographs that would comprise his globally-acclaimed “Hairstyles” series, a decades-long project that immortalized the elaborate plaits and buns in stark, black-and-white portraits. “To watch a ‘hair artist’ going through his precise gestures, like an artist making a sculpture, is fascinating,” he once said. “All these hairstyles are ephemeral. I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them.” With exhibitions and retrospectives all over the world and a reputation as one of the 20th century’s preeminent African photographers, Ojeikere certainly succeeded in doing just that.
The titles of Ojeikere’s photographs hint at the inspiration behind each hair sculpture—Onile Gogoro, a Yoruba style that roughly translates to “tall house” or “skyscraper,” involves spindly sections of tightly threaded hair molded upward to create gravity-defying, crownlike structures that extended high into the air. It’s no coincidence that the popularity of this style became popular in the wake of Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. The upward aspirations of the newly liberated population could be seen in the styles of the day, just as the Lagos skyline began to stretch skyward, too.
"The hairstyles represented much more than just style,” says Medina Dugger, a Lagos-based photographer and admirer of Ojeikere’s oeuvre. "Prior to British rule, traditional hairstyles were the norm and varied according to tribe, social status, martial status, and special events.” Dugger first traveled to Nigeria’s largest city in 2011 at the behest of a classmate who had co-founded the LagosPhoto festival. It was there that she encountered Ojeikere’s photography—his “Hairstyles” led to the creation of Dugger’s "Chroma: An Ode to J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere," a series of bold, color-soaked photos depicting modern, multi-hued updates of the hairstyles featured in Ojeikere’s work.
"During colonial rule, hair straightening and wigs became more common, as women began to conform to Western standards of beauty," Dugger says. It was, in part, "an excitement for a newly independent Nigeria" that led to the renewed demand for traditional hairstyles. Ojeikere, who also traveled across the country, capturing everything from college students on campus to Lagos’ architectural landmarks, effectively created an extensive time capsule of Nigeria during a period of sweeping social and institutional change. In addition to his own personal photography projects, Ojeikere held positions at the national Ministry of Information, Africa’s first television station, Television House Ibadan, and West Africa Publicity, and the Nigerian Arts Council.
Still, it’s the “Hairstyles” series that continues to be most strongly associated with Ojeikere’s name. For Dugger, it’s the timing and intention behind his work that drew her in. “This link between style and history fascinated me, especially in a time where globalization and social media threaten to dilute style and traditions worldwide," she says. "The world is becoming more and more integrated and connected and I think it's important that cultural and historical practices be preserved in the process."
In her modern take on Ojeikere’s work, the models face away from the camera, much like the black-and-white source material, the image focusing on the intricate hairstyle on display, created by Nigerian hairstylist Ijeoma Christopher. “I decided to involve the models in the process, so they often gave their input on the style, color of hair extensions, and outfits they preferred—most by Nigerian designers,” Dugger explains. “I would share a style originally photographed by Ojeikere, and [Christopher] would recreate it,” this time in a variety of electrifying colors. “I liked the idea of highlighting a time-honored traditional practice using a contemporary medium—colorful hair extensions,” says Dugger.
“Occasionally, we began with a particular hairstyle in mind, and ended up with something slightly different in the end,” Dugger says of the creative process behind Chroma, “Because of the model’s preference or variations with the materials we worked with.” In this way, both conceptually and visually, both her and Ojeikere’s series quite literally center black women. From box braids to Senegalese twists to Bantu knots to Fulani braids, black women’s hair remains the site of tradition, labor, creativity, and community. Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Shani Crowe, who’s created plaited headdresses for the likes of Solange, grew up braiding hair and also reflects Ojeikere’s work in her photo series titled “Braids.”
“No matter what the trend, braids are always going to be relevant in some way,” Ms. Crowe told The New York Times in 2016. “It’s kind of like you’re being protected by a cultural helmet of sorts.” For centuries, hairstyling has been used across the African continent to symbolize class, marital status, and heritage. Of course, as these styles have made their way across oceans and around the world, their specific intricacies and meanings continue to transform. Whereas Ojeikere sought to capture the hairstyles that were already making their way around Lagos and created art in the process, artists like Duggar and Crowe reverse that process in their work, creating elaborate, three-dimensional braided styles for photographs that eventually become reference photos for salon clients who want to recreate the look on themselves. Then again, for Ojeikere, perhaps it was always one and the same. As he put it: “I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge. Art is life.”