With Tokunbo, Vijay shines light on Nigerian heritage
I haven’t met Olusimi Vijay Afun-Ogidan. However, the first time we spoke, he was eager to roll out his new project. He sent me his portfolio to have a glimpse of his visual interrogation with space. I saw a couple of shots, which he described as “my Tokunbo shots.”
Vijay’s images were detailed and explicit. I quietly ate a bit of my biro, as I made some notes. He is a new generation of visual experimentalist in diaspora. He replaced his engineering degree with a camera and hasn’t looked back.
“The Tokunbo series is a much character study of Nigerian lives,” he says.Vijay seemed the very essence of a Juve bestriding the visual world. With his double heritage — his dad was from Ilesha, Osun State and mom from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in India — underlining camera obscura and a magical aura of ‘otherness’, it is all too possible to see him capturing black lives.
Taken from the Yoruba word meaning from across the sea, Tokunbo is an ongoing photo-documentary project about Nigerians in the diaspora. It looks at how Nigerians in New York City preserve pieces of their culture in the diaspora, who can be perceived as preservers and users of their home culture.
“Through images of fashion, music and rituals, the project considers how this community maintains a sense of home even as it tries to keep up with American culture and live out the American dream,” Vijay says. “I myself, being from a mixed culture of Nigerian-Indian, have been walking along these intersections of culture and identity in Nigeria, and now, away from home, once again, I’m reminded of these intersections of culture, identity and race, in America and finding ways to juggle them all.”
He continues, “this is what inspired me to look into the Nigerians in diaspora and how they juggle their culture, the American culture as well as being black in America. This ongoing project was photographed in the great ‘melting pot’ of the United States, New York City. Tokunbo is a local story, but one that touches on themes that affect immigrants from all countries.”
The project is a visual poetry with intoxicating passion. It is a mix of exiguous images, which create a mental picture of diaspora, while the shots are treated with respect and details.
Vijay says, “what was fascinating was meeting first and second-generation Nigerians that were fully integrated into American culture but then seeing them reaching out to learn cultural traditions like playing the talking drums, or tying the Gele, traditional tribal dances, traditional attire fashion, learning their tribal languages, holding on to tribal wedding rites and desiring to maintain a Home away from Home. A lot of these are being learnt from YouTube as well as Nigerians who migrated here with the cultural skills.”
He adds, “it is difficult for me to think about the exact moment where this journey began, I believe the eureka moment was at a Nigerian wedding I was shooting in New Jersey, I literally felt I was at a wedding event in Lagos, Nigeria, the Alaga, the talking drum drummers, the aroma of the food, the chatter from people speaking Yoruba all around me and these were the same people who when I spoke to earlier in the morning were dressed in casual outfits and sounded and behaved American, It was fascinating seeing them juggle their identities. This is why I decided to document Nigerians in the diaspora.”
According to him, “Dr. Itoro grew up in the US as a first generation Nigerian American, she invited me to her house in Yonkers, NY, and to a Ibibio traditional dance practice she and her friends put together to train second generation Nigerian Ibibio children about the Ibibio traditional dances. She and her friends make up a traditional troupe called, ‘Ibom Attitude’, they were taught by their moms, who arrived in 1970s to study, the Ibibio language and dances, and now they wish to teach the second generation Nigerians.”
He adds, “Itoro, like many other Nigerians I had the chance to photograph, are constantly balancing being Nigerian and American. Also, in the light of recent Black Lives Matter, they understand the plight of the African Americas being a black person in America regardless of their African ties.”
In capturing his images, he talks with the camera. He uses portraits to tell the story, which a good number of young first generation Nigerians desirous to learn for both cultural and business needs. He allows the images to breathe so as to take pressure away from his audience.
For him, the directions most Nigerians in diaspora face are neither strictly binary nor linear: the view for cultural fluency is not as much backward or forward as it is side to side and being a Nigerian-American all around. Such flexible positioning can be used to nail down a career in a Western market that still demands exoticism and ethnic authenticity in America or give them the necessary integration skills when they visit or return to Nigeria for work or pleasure.
Since he started arranging shots to convey a message, Vijay says he has been part of three group shows. The first one was in Abuja (September 16 to 18, 2016). It was called Afro modernism by Retro Africa. The second group exhibition was in New York at the International Center for Photography (June 15 and 19, 2019), called The Underground Almanac and the third was Portrait of America (2015) in San Francisco, USA.”
Vijay is planning a solo traveling exhibition in the near future, both in Nigeria and New York. “Photography for me has always been something more personal than professional, it has been my medium to explore life around me and share visual stories of issues or themes I deem important,” he confesses.
According to him, “picking a subject is, of course, the most important first step and toughest stage, nailing down the theme and the concept of the project. Firstly, I have to get motivated by my passion for a theme, I care about and is something new and exciting to me so as to help me get great shots but also it will keep me going to create a good body of work, and work towards finishing it. When I get motivated, the theme has to be interesting to me, and to the prospective subjects, I want to make a series of images off. That way when I tell them about my idea, it is easier to collaborate with them and share their story.”
He continues, “as a storyteller, I want my series of images to be able to isolate beauty within the monotony of my subject’s daily life and aim to give my viewers instant visual gratification by creating a series for which they can immediately identify the theme. I always have at the back of my mind, that the collection of images – not the isolated image – is the creation here. I wait to see what develops as the collection accumulates and the photo series begins to take shape.”
Vijay does a lot of research to gain more insight and formulate a consensus on whom he will need to speak to, and the information he would be sharing with them: “I look around for people with compelling stories to tell.”
He likes to have basic description and timeline for his project before he gets started, which acts as his vision and gives it shape. “Questions like, will it be colour or black and white, reportage or posed portraits, landscapes or still life shots, etc.? Will the photos have a similar look and feel? Will I use strobes or natural light? What is the title of the project? It also helps to think about the final outcome of the project, is it for online or do I want to print, what medium do I want to engage my viewers through. Do I want to add mixed media, like audio or view interviews?”
The visual experimentalist says COVID-19 lockdown gave him time to reflect, and step back and see that life is unpredictable. The Black lives matter movement also opened my mind to the reality of the black struggle and global injustices to the black race. Things going on in Nigeria around rape and sexual harassment towards females made me realize how our society still has a very limited understanding of gender, mental health issues and also not knowing how rape could bring a lifetime impact to the survivor.”
After the lockdown is over, “I’ll probably look more towards stories around me. I am hoping I can tell more stories that shed light on these issues and raise awareness and it will give the subject a reason to keep fighting for their betterment and others in similar situations,” he retorts.