In Medina Dugger’s Enshroud, women in Lagos dance, jump, spin and twirl. Their boldly coloured veils are whipped around by the wind, unfurling in abstract shapes. For a fleeting moment, it seems, the hijab is removed from its highly politicised context, fabric flowing with a rhythm all its own.
‘The observer’ in us: Medina Dugger on art, activism, and optimism
At this time of flux, Face to Face, an exhibition curated by Ekow Eshun in partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights, is seeking to rally people in London and beyond behind front-line activists around the world so that they can stand up for their communities. Plinth spoke to artist Medina Dugger, whose series Enshroud is featured in the exhibition, to talk art, activism, and how to create change.
When Medina moved to Lagos in 2011, she was struck by the sheer variety of headscarves that she encountered on the streets. ‘These bold bursts of colour dot the cityscape and are impossible to ignore. I became interested in photographing them in a more abstract sense to capture them in this new (to me) perspective.’
Indeed, as you walk down the King’s Cross Tunnel, Medina’s images are impossible to ignore in themselves; these bold bursts of colour remain with you long afterwards, dancing like phosphenes on the back of your eyelids.
"These bold bursts of colour dot the cityscape and are impossible to ignore."
How did your perspective shift upon moving to Lagos?
‘When I first arrived in Nigeria I had no idea how important style was there. I ignorantly packed as if I were going on safari, I had no context in my understanding of what Lagos was like (largely due to the limited imagery and storylines portrayed to the world about the country and continent). I was underdressed for a month till I made some new clothes.
Images and stories of art, style and creativity are beginning to spread worldwide through social media and progressive news stories as Lagos emerges as one of the burgeoning contemporary art and cultural centres of the world.
Do you conceive of your practice as a kind of activism?
I moved to Lagos nearly 10 years ago and when I first turned my attention from my role [as co-curator (2011-15)] with the LagosPhoto Festival to my personal practice, I didn’t consider my work to be activist in nature. I was however very conscious of my own changing perceptions following my submersion into a completely different country and culture. My work may be received differently depending where it’s viewed.
For example, in Lagos, I think my series “Chroma: An Ode to J.D. Okhai Ojeikere” is seen as a tribute to one of the country’s legendary photographers and a celebration of traditional hairstyles. In the West, Ojeikere is largely unknown to the general population and the series may be viewed under a more political lens, considering schools and organisations are still discriminating, policing and politicising black hair.
My practice in the country and on the continent was greatly shaped by the ideals of the LagosPhoto Festival, which aims to share the multifaceted stories of Africa throughout the city (avoiding the common pessimistic stereotypical stories) with the aim of reclaiming public spaces and engaging the general public. These multifaceted stories are aimed to create positive social change which is a core feature of activism, so I circle back on this question to an answer of “yes” I conceive of my practice as a kind of activism.
What do you think of these images being shown in a London underpass, viewed by the public on their commute or making their way through the city? Do you think of these works as staging an encounter?
I am excited for these images to be shown in London to commuters, and I do see the series as a subtle encounter. I don’t think the irony is lost on many that the very countries that once outlawed or condemned face coverings have now mandated them. The reasons for covering are different however the result is the same, leading some Muslims to believe bans had less to do with safety concerns or communication barriers and were instead rooted in Islamophobia. I think mass face covering due to Covid and hopefully this series may lessen the extent of ‘otherness’ applied too liberally to women who veil.
"Change will require some discomfort."
Is an artistic practice the best location for one’s political practice, or activist intent?
I believe artistic practices have the most profound and unique ability to reach and engage people on an emotional level in a way that words or policy may not. While our literal left brain is essential, our emotional right brain is equally as important and far under-utilised. Art is the perfect tool to address this discrepancy and unfolds in every conceivable aspect of life. The belief that art is a token skill reserved for those select genius few, ‘naturally gifted’ and that art in not essential is a crime to society. I believe the most effective way to create change is within ourselves. As we are energetic beings, I believe work on self creates a domino effect into the collective consciousness.
I read that you originally trained and practised as a neonatal nurse. Do you think this influenced your practise?
"We must continue striving for wellness-for-all as opposed to survival of the few."
Healthcare workers are absolutely heroes. When I worked as a neonatal nurse, something I realised quickly was that for some healthcare workers, compassion led their practice, while for others it did not. There is this assumption that people in health care are innately empathetic but the reality is, as in all professions, the full gamut of personalities and emotional maturity exists within people. Some possess compassion in their toolkit of interventions, while others may not and are driven more from an interest in science and medicine, prestige or the paycheck.
Ensuring my patients were as comfortable as possible and attending to developmental care, which is crucial with premature babies, was always a priority for me and this is also something I bring to photography when it comes to photographing people. I like to know the people I am working with are comfortable and taken care of. On a shoot, this has meant communicating well, understanding the comfort level of photographic subjects and planning for food and bev provisions for my team.
2020 has starkly exposed how undervalued our care system is in the UK. Are there aspects of the sector that you would like to see changed?
We must continue striving for wellness-for-all as opposed to survival of the few. This requires change on the individual level as well as policy and organisational levels. Fortunately, I believe the winds of change are coming, people are awakening to their states of dis-ease, joined by a battalion of health care professionals, integrative and osteopathic doctors, practitioners, nutritionists, mind-body healers who are addressing this gap and constructing new healing models with science- backed research and interventions. Their work is beginning to drive change incrementally but the current systems and powers in place are not small hurdles.
"Courageous leaders like the young Greta Thunberg are spearheading movements, recognising the interconnected fate of humanity and nature."
COVID-19 has made many people question the way that our societies and its institutions are set up. What has been your experience of the last six months?
On a personal level the last six months have been filled with varying emotions. I’ve experienced great sadness, fear, disillusionment, awakening, hope, gratitude, love and healing. These months have surprisingly been a time of restoration for me health-wise. I was suffering from a severe allergies over the last 4 years unknowingly provoked from toxic mold in my apt. Removing myself from that trigger has enabled my body to heal which I am so grateful for. This personal healing has given me the energy and determination to focus my attention more on restoration and wellness in a broader context, to include others, communities, the world.
I am reminded of a powerful quote by Franklin Leonard, “When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. What I hope for is a mindful, peaceful revolution, however we live in such a polarised, reactive time. I think many people agree the current system is broken, however more of us need to replace talking with action. Split among the masses are a mix of those who yearn for the past and aren’t willing to accept change and those who concede we need change but do not want to be inconvenienced too much to get there. Change will require some discomfort.
We have experienced a surge of political awareness amongst young people in the western world this year. How can we maintain this momentum on a daily basis to continue to push for change?
It is exciting to see the current generation of young people waking up to their power, influence and purpose. Historically, it’s not uncommon for dysfunction, oppression and inequality to drive activism. I think maintaining the momentum daily among young people is more readily maintained once it’s been awakened and may best be achieved through engagement with them via project-based, community-driven platforms that are aligned with their concerns and interests. Greater representation and inclusion of younger leaders (in addition to the elder leaders we typically see in positions of power) would likely allow them to feel they have agency and that their voices matter.
I also believe there is a lot we may learn from our indigenous past and that the erasure of this wisdom in modern life has contributed greatly to our dysfunction. I recently discovered the important work of scholar and shaman Malidoma Patrice Somé. Through his writings I was reminded of how the modern world, in its insatiable quest for advancement, progress and power, has done so to its own detriment, in a system that is wholly unsustainable.
Many falsely assume that indigenous people and practices are simplistic, primitive and irrelevant with nothing to contribute to modern society but this misconception has blinded us to an advanced, essential wisdom and technology, centred for thousands of years around community, nature and ritual, which could contribute greatly to the restoration of modern society. When these three features are activated, humankind may achieve the deep purpose, meaning, affirmation and healing so gravely needed and sought after despite professional, material and personal accomplishments.
These concepts may sound unorthodox, but I believe they address the root of some of our gravest concerns. Many young people are disillusioned with the state of the world. Courageous leaders like the young Greta Thunberg are spearheading movements, recognizing the interconnected fate of humanity and nature. The momentum of youth activism will be intensified by our own courageous, honest efforts to shed behaviours and ideologies which do us harm while rediscovering and reincorporating forgotten wisdom of our past to heal both indigenous and modern worlds.
What do you mean by ‘indigenous wisdom’, and how might we maintain a sense of optimism as we move forward in this climate?
A concept that stood out for me from the book Siddhartha was the revelation that knowledge can be taught but wisdom cannot; wisdom must be acquired through personal experiences. Perhaps this is the reason humans continue to make the same mistakes, generation after generation. While this may be true, indigenous wisdom suggests learning is simply remembering what you already know, which implies a deeper knowing that may be accessed through physical and spiritual connections if we have the courage to seek them.
This concept gives me hope for the human race. I think everyone can recall instances where they engaged in an interaction from a place of the ego, allowing past traumas to dictate current situations. We may operate from programming and fear as opposed to love, or ‘the observer’ in us. The first step is becoming aware of this habit and realising that the place we engage from influences outcomes. To maintain optimism, we must be willing to come from love instead of fear, to look inward, to be curious, to be willing to be wrong and constantly seek to grow our understanding.
On Thursday 22 October, Medina Dugger spoke to Lagos-based activist Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Executive Director of Spaces for Change, about art and activism in Nigeria:
You can read more interviews with the artists featured in Face to Face here.