Men of The Ogele (2014)
Men of the Ogele is a photographic series taken by Zina Saro-Wiwa in Ogoniland. Located in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, an hour or so outside Port Harcourt, Ogoniland has it own masquerading culture, like many parts of West Africa. Most masquerades were created far in the past before anyone can remember when or how they emerged. Traditionally tied to farming cycles, a masked performer would perform for audiences surrounded by drummers and flautists at specific times of the year like yam harvest or New Year. Masquerades existed and still exist to augur good luck for planting seasons, for entertainment and also as a form of social control. But in the 1980s and 1990s a new form of masquerade emerged in Ogoniland. Inspired by the political situation in Ogoni and the Niger Delta, a growing Ogoni consciousness spawned a masquerade called “Gbaaloo” which means “United” in Ogoni language. But the phenomenon is nicknamed “Ogele”.
Ogele groups were formed by young men and these masquerades featured large, tall, very heavy masks made of wood that were often painted with car paint that are markedly distinct from the face masks of previous generations. These tiered masks tell stories that reflect the political and sometimes psychological situation of the time they were created. The mystical permeates Ogele as the young men have a practise of disappearing into the forests for up to three years to “dream” the design of the masquerades masks and the accompanying songs and dances.
Ogele groups are comprised of at least six men. There is the dancer who dresses in a colourful oversized bodysuit made from found materials and scraps as well as the heavy mask and then there are the musicians. As a group they move around villages of Ogoni or are hired for special occasions and political rallies. Though these men move in a group, Saro-Wiwa’s images often focus down on individual members, deconstructing the phenomenon both physically and emotionally.
A difficult network of organizations to track, the men of the Ogele have never been photographed before and these pieces form part of a body of work about masquerade that Saro-Wiwa is creating in the Niger Delta for Seattle Art Museum. Playful, passionate and vulnerable, Saro-Wiwa’s images upend the usual presentation of African masquerade and gently dismantle the notion of ‘African tradition’. They suggest an emotional and living relationship between the mask, the mask wearer and the performance, breathing humanity into the interrogation of such African cultures. The unmasking of these secret societies gives us a rare glimpse into the hearts of minds of Ogoni men and challenge the highly politicised reading of Ogoni and Niger Delta life.