Traditional Yoruba religion is by a large amount of people in Nigeria considered outdated or evil. In a “mistranslation” the name of Orisha Eshu came into use as the name for the devil in the Yoruba language bible. Christianity became part of a modern lifestyle. Once a major part of everyday life the Babalawo and Olorisha came under pressure as “idol worshippers” when new social and religious perceptions spread with colonialism in West Africa. This is very contrary to the transatlantic diaspora of the Yoruba people. In the streets of Havana people today are proudly wearing their ileke necklaces, which show their actual status as Olorisha. A large community of devotees exists in the U.S. and millions of people follow the popular paths of the Yoruba religion all over South America with Brazil as one of its major centers. In Nigeria it is not difficult to note tensions between the different religions. So I was very surprised when I saw the work of a remarkable contemporary Nigerian artist, who is not of Yoruba origin, but was dealing with Orisha worship in the medium of photography.
I encountered the stunning work of Adolphus Opara when I was visiting the CCA, Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Lagos and met curator Jude Anogwih. The center published an exhibition catalogue on Opara’s series “Emissaries of an Iconic Religion” in 2013 and I was lucky to get a copy. In this book the artist describes his work in an interview with the curator of the show. After a research period of three years the young successful photographer created a beautiful series of twenty works, portraying Nigerian Olorisha in their shrines. This is a rare documentary view from an artist who in his work critically addresses issues of Africa’s modern day society, culture and politics. An inside view from a Nigerian artist onto traditions of his country - that’s worth to look upon in detail.
Adolphus Opara (*1981) is an artist and photographer living and working in Lagos, Nigeria. His work has been exhibited internationally and can be found in many public and private collections. He was awarded several prizes for photography and works for local and international media, NGO’s and organizations. His photos have been published by e.g. the New York Times, Guardian London, Timeout Nigeria etc.
The series “Emissaries of an Iconic Religion” documents Opara’s open minded journey into the Yoruba spiritual world. In the literal sense of “re-porting” he left his own Catholic environment, went to new and unknown spaces of traditional religion and finally “brought something back”, reported, for the audience of his artwork. His intense examination of the Olorisha’s personal spaces, the ritual objects involved and his passion for storytelling using vibrant images can be seen in the outcome of the artwork. He is treating the portrayed people with a deep respect and captured them in concentrated and intimate moments, defined by a well-chosen composition in the background. All this would not have been possible without the long-time preparation and the personal relations Opara established, becoming friends with the Olorisha and getting familiar with their beliefs over the years.
Adolphus Opara came up with the idea for this series when he was speaking with one of the Chief priests the first time. He planned the whole series right ahead. In discussions, meetings and visits to many different Yoruba towns and villages he “demystified all previous ill notions of their traditional and religious practice.” (Opara, exhibition catalogue, p.40, details below) Previously he had already been interested into the topic of traditional religions and documented festivals and ceremonies in Nigeria and neighboring countries, searching for answers on questions of African identity.
Shooting the photos Opara used only sources of natural light in the shrines, no artificial lights, no flash. Often the light came in only through a small window. The required high ISO sensitivity and the long time of exposure led to the rich colors and the visible grain in the photos. “Opara succeeds in imbuing the portraits with a profound sense of presence, confidence and pride resulting in an aura of dignity and humanity. In these portraits he attempts to deconstruct previously held Western concepts of how Africans deliberately pose for the camera such as always showing off the ‘completeness’ of hands and limbs” (Tam Fiofori, exhibition catalogue, p.25, see details below).
The portrayed Olorisha in this series represent the deity they worship. “Olorisha” comes from Yoruba “O ni Orisha”, shortened to “Olorisha”, and means “The one owning Orisha”. The Yoruba do not believe in Orisha like one believes in God the Almighty. The Yoruba word “igbagbo”, translated into English as "belief", is connected to Christianity only. According to Adunni Olorisa Susanne Wenger "mo n gbagbo", I believe, can be interpreted as “I heard what others told me” (audio interview with Ulla Schild, Janheinz Jahn archive, Berlin). It is a word that has not been connected to religion originally. An Olorisha literally owns an Orisha. Since you have it, you do not have to “believe” into it in a Christian sense. “Being an Orisha priest” in Yoruba language thus is in considered rather a state of ownership. "You own the god and you are the god, you represent the god you serve" (Susanne Wenger, ibid.). On the other hand, in the initiation process the Orisha is mounted into the physical head and later might use the body of the initiate in trance to come into the visible world. So also the Orisha vice-versa owns the body, or at least the head, of the devotee.
Adolphus Opara’s work brings together portrays of the persons and - through their bodily representations - the Orisha themselves. There is a vast discourse on how “authentic” a photographic image ever could be as a representation of the reality. In this case I would say the artist got as close as possible to this term. In the same moment Opara offers a wide range of interpretations, speaking not only of Yoruba religion or society of the present day nation of Nigeria. More generally - through images of people - he raises questions about how we deal with our cultural heritage and how our identity is constantly being reshaped and adopted based on our cultural traditions. A true piece of art, that is not just beautiful to watch, but challenges the viewer demanding answers and moving our thoughts and hearts.
Adolphus Opara recently created a new series of photographs at the Sacred Oshun Grove in Oshogbo. We will publish an article on it here in the future. Also see his website with a huge archive of photos on various topics from Nigeria and West African countries.
The titles of the photos are written as given by the artist and describe the name of the Orisha, add a short English description in brackets and mention the name of the portrayed person. You can see interesting details like special cloth, beads or colors associated with the Orisha, their sacred tools, shrines and vessels and various ritual objects used in worship.
All images are under Copyright by Adolphus Opara and are published here with his kind permission. Thank you to Adolphus Opara.
Bisi Silva, Jude Anogwih (ed.): Emissaries of an Iconic Religion, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Lagos, 2013. Exhibition Catalogue with texts by Bisi Silva, Jude Anogwih and Tam Fiofori, it features an interview with the artist and many images of this series of 20 portrays including exhibition views on 62 pages.
Recording of an audio interview, Ulla Schild talks to Susanne Wenger (German language, guess it is from the late 1970s), Janheinz Jahn Archive, Berlin