By Prisca SamDuru
Uche Okpa-Iroha is a visual artist, photographer and the Director of The Nlele Institute , an informal platform for the teaching and learning of photography. The Institute runs workshops and mentoring classes and has recently, developed a twelve month curriculum where they’ve began to teach photography.
In this interview, Uche shared insight on photography as a strong tool for change and development, the Nlele Institute as well as the “Live-In-Desires” exhibition currently showing at the Freedom Park Lagos. Excerpts.
It may surprise you to know that some people do not see photography as a serious aspect of art, so why not drawing and painting to bring out creativity in youths?
That’s not true. Photography requires a lot of creativity because for you to be that photographer, you have to critically engage with a space. We know that photography is a very important language in contemporary times and that’s why even art is essential and because it is provocative in that we use photography to interrogate, even when it reports realities, it also has the potential to enter into the realm of abstraction. Photography is important in today’s time because things happening around the world are reported through photography. The first Images that were made in Africa were through photography. The first photography in Africa was made between 1839 and 1850. So photography is very key and that’s why we use the Nlele Institute to teach photography and to draw the youths into a space whereby they are free to create, using the tool of the camera. Also, the platform presents a space which is the criticality in using it in questioning our environment, exploring our space, society, government, tradition etc. Without photography, most of these photos of what happened in 1839 will not be available to us now.
What other reasons led to the establishment of the Institute?
Before setting up Nlele institute there were other platforms. We set up Nlele Institute because I discovered that most of the people who engaged in photography were not properly taught. So we believe that this sort of structure must be in place compared with what was obtainable in Nigeria as at that time. We had other countries far ahead of us especially South Africa that has a well developed educational system, in addition to the informal educational system through the market sector workshop which they set up immediately after the apartheid; they are very much ahead of us. They have the infrastructure, the curriculum, structures but we didn’t have it. So for me who studied Food Engineering in school and picked up photography in 2005, I didn’t have any platform I could learn photography which became my passion, I learned on the streets of Lagos. And in other to bridge the gap, I decided that things cannot continue that way. So, I set up the Nlele Institute and brought on board young and enthusiastic and passionate people into it, gave them a space where they’re given direction, provided resources, research materials, library etc so they can learn and develop themselves.
Where is it situated?
We are moving space to Opebi, Ikeja but we’re still renovating.
Briefly tell us about the “Live-In-Desires exhibition?
It is a photography exhibition by 12 emerging artists and it is currently showing at freedom Park, Old Prison Yard, Broadstreet Lagos. It was done in partnership with the Goethe Institut Nigeria and Freedom Park. The young artists are exploring the concept of desire from multiple perspectives in relation to their environment and residential spaces in Lagos. It is an unconventional exhibition in that artists were obligated to approach the subject matter from varied perspectives. They attempted the fusion of human desires with visual interpretation of the abstract so as to arrive or agree on a discernible formation or structure.
After the “Live-In-Desires” exhibition, what next?
After the exhibition, we continue helping the artists improve upon what they’ve done so far, that’s what mentoring is all about. We combine mentoring classes with workshops and that’s how we come out with works such as these. It doesn’t stop with an exhibition. We can’t just produce and keep the works. They have the platform and from there we empower them, expose them to the media both within and outside. This way they gradually entire the global art market and become resourceful. This is another way of addressing youth restiveness in Nigeria. If the education system is failing, why don’t we try the informal way, I mean informal platforms like the Nlele Institute. Most of these artists are graduates but because they have passion for photography, we bring them on board and teach them. It’s not fair that we allow people from Europe to tell our story. We must tell our story and that’s why we are training young artists to be at the front burner to drive this all important issue of telling Africa’s story. We also aim to detect and develop new talents predominantly in grassroots areas. By providing public access to photography and art education, we are able to adequately address the needs of underprivileged (or deprived) communities as they relate to financial inclusion, entrepreneurship, education, gender equality, digital technology and professional training.
What exactly does Nlele mean?
Nlele was coined from an Igbo word which is Ihe Nlele which means something worth admiring -which is art.
Nlele Institute (TNI) which was established in 2013, is a Pan‐African, autonomous and non‐profit art photography organization. It exists as a cultural hub that enhances social cohesion through visual learning processes. We are recognized for our professionalism in the study and research of photography throughout Nigeria and the sub region. TNI makes use of all available resources (be it manual or digital) in executing programmes and projects that help create awareness and interest in photography.
Like I mentioned earlier, the institute runs workshops and mentoring classes and we have now developed a twelve month curriculum where we have started teaching photography. Some of the items on the curriculum are forensic photography, curatorial practice, underwater photography, and every other aspect of photography.
Any Challenges mentoring young artists?
There are so many challenges but the major challenges are infrastructural and funding. To get a space and all the necessary resources to bring it up to international standard is a huge challenge but with commitment and extra effort, we are working towards achieving all that.