Between the years of 2008 and 2009, travelling into the heart of Nigeria—between the cities of Enugu and Asaba—Pieter Hugo’s retrospective captured the various actors in Nigeria’s movie industry, trailing his lens across the primary subjects who happened to be the frightening characters of deeply evocative Nollywood scene.
Words by Olisa Jr.
Far beyond the bloody faces, demonic eyes, or the gruesome essence of death and evil, the series captures a genre that truly reflected Nigeria’s cultural nucleus around rituals, witchcraft, evil, and all the other scary entities we weren’t allowed to speak of as children.
The Johannesburg-hailing photographic artist is no stranger to great acclaim and achievements, as his work has been in countless exhibitions across the world, from Budapest to Stockholm, from Rome to Seoul, and it’s certainly no surprise why that is the case. His work holds a radically raw level of truth and emotions through each image of his, stripping it down to a minimal body, and at the same time, the same effects hold his images up as spectacles of each of their own.
Born in 1976, and living through the closing years of apartheid in South Africa, the striking photographer undoubtedly translated the landscape of emotions and feelings of that era into the work he found himself creating many years later and till this day. In an interview with New York Times, in 2020, speaking on the underpinnings of his work, Hugo says, “Transitioning from one system to another left an impression and transformed me.
Everything I saw was mediated by some power, so I wanted to see for myself, and photography was the perfect tool for my wanderlust.” A sentiment that is conveyed both through the subjects and settings he chooses to capture, and the aesthetic in which he chooses to capture them.
For this series, Hugo’s visual aesthetic was most vivid, as each image didn’t leave even an inch of scepticism of what was being portrayed. One standout is the image of Malachy Udegbunam from Enugu, portraying the role of Jesus. We see the subject in a traditional praising pose with his hands lifted into the air, conveying a posture of reverence.
The bloody hands with nail marks, and the thorns around his head point to the depiction of Jesus Christ on the cross. Though, what might conjure the most surreal, mystical impression is the gaze of the subject in this. He’s defeated, almost lifeless, and barely hanging on as his eyes look soulless behind them. It is the little details in this image that capture why Hugo’s work is such an evocative sight.
Growing up as a kid in a christian home, my parents were beyond strict on my siblings and me never watching Nollywood, and it was no surprise why. While the gory and brutal retrospective existed on the screen of our TVs, there was a searingly direct influence from the day to day life of Nigerian culture. We all knew about native doctors growing up, or the money rituals of family members, or even the witchcraft cults using people as sacrifices for their own needs. And in the same way Hollywood captures the interesting facets of American society and the greater world, Nollywood did the same for the Nigerian culture.
Furthermore, what made the cinematic experience even more unique was the crude and unrefined aesthetic of it—from the terribly awful CGI to the generic creepy sound sequences, from the exaggerated and slow narration to the jumpscare cinematography—and while it might not have been intentional, it did create the sense that what was being shown on screen was just as real as what was happening outside our doorsteps or down the road. I’ve always believed that if there was good, there truly must be evil, and in this series, Hugo beautifully captures that evil and does it in a captivating style.
All images by Pieter Hugo, Nollywood series, 2018. View full series on Hugo’s website here.