Pictured: Nigerian artist Obinna Obioma
Image courtesy of Obinna Obioma

Spotlight: Obi Obioma Shows Us That The Kids Are Not Alright

The Nigerian photographer and art director uses his creative talents to reflect the social, economic, and political realities of Nigerian youths.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.

In our latest piece, we spotlight Nigerian photographer and art director Obinna Obioma. The artist has used his degrees in international relations, diplomacy, and law to translate the grim realities of the Nigerian youth through art. Obioma's work centers largely on the communities he grew up with, and he uses his platform to highlight those stories. His own family inspired him to pursue photography and his creations have continued to reflect his Nigerian heritage and pride. As the artist puts it, his various projects, "Play on the narrative that culture goes deeper than just physical garments". Obioma's latest project 'Naija' tells a familiar story of corruption, insecurity, and police brutality among the youths in West Africa. Nigerian youths are more often than not trying to escape the harsh conditions that their leadership has bestowed on them, most leaving behind their lives totally.

We spoke with Obioma about celebrating our identities and heritage, and how creative honesty can empower a generation.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your background as an artist and the journey you've taken to get it to where it is today.

Although I am an alumnus of the International Center of Photography (ICP, NYC) where I studied photography and Art Direction, I initially come from a less creative background.

My undergraduate and master's degree are in international relations, diplomacy, and international law, respectfully. I was exposed to photography by my photo-enthusiast father while growing up. He would photograph our family for birthdays and other social events -- my love for photography was planted here, and many years later my mother gifted me with a camera after my first degree. I enrolled at YouTube University and then was mentored by photographer Henry Nwaeze where I got to work in his studio as a photo intern, and later a photographer. I then joined ICP to learn photo theory and art direction.

What are the central themes in your work and how have you told the story this time around?

My work is predominantly centered on addressing and celebrating Individuality, Identity, and African Heritage. I often use my African background and Nigerian heritage to inform and influence my style, concepts, and motifs. I believe that as an Artist, my work should be an expression of who I am, the subjective elements that have shaped me, and the issues I hold dear to my heart that I would like to address through my work.

In “Naija” I collaborated with fellow Nigerian artist and Cinematographer Davidson Ogujiuba to create a photo and video project that addresses the core social, economic, and political issues that have continually bedeviled Nigeria.

Looking through the eyes of the youths in Nigeria, the work highlights a few main issues; insecurity, fuel scarcity, teachers' strike actions, and mass exodus of skilled youths to the West. In a more subtle approach, the work also highlights other issues such as bribery and corruption, police brutality, lack of stable electricity, and the unfavorable exchange rate.

Can you talk about your use of accessories in this project?

When conceptualizing and creating the art direction for the photos, it was important to use items that translated visually but did not come off as overly spoon-feeding the viewer. It was important for us to select props and accessories that complimented the theme of the work and were also items that were relatable and could trigger a level of nostalgia.

For instance, to show fuel scarcity we decided to use plastic gallons also known as "jerry cans" which are often used to line up for petrol in gas stations when there’s a scarcity. To show the exchange rate imbalance, a scale was used to visually show how $1 is almost as valuable as ₦1000. Finally, the styling of the man in arms was done in a very ambiguous manner so as to be able to relate to insecurity, police brutality, and also kidnappers and bandits.

The video directing and post-production -- sound design and SFX -- edits by Davidson follow the same blueprint. We wanted the video to be short, straight to the point but still memorable. Each song was carefully selected and vetted to match each clip.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

I think like most creatives, the height of the pandemic in 2020 affected how we operate and create. Being a visual artist and photographer, it was rather frustrating not to be able to step out and shoot or even put photo projects together. On a more financial note, there was a dip in clients booking for shoots, etc which affected livelihoods. Regardless, art is one of those things that often adapts to change and shifts landscapes. I can say now that I became a better artist as I was able to tap into other genres of visual art, such as screen-based art, and still create work.

In my work 'Through The Screen', I created it via FaceTime and my Camera to connect and capture. I took the liberty of using photography to tell the story of those who live in such cities, forced to socially distance themselves. In 'Ihe Na Adigi Omimi' -- meaning “Skin Deep” -- I created 3D renders of a Black woman and layered her skin with the popular West African fabric known as Ankara. Playing on the narrative that culture goes deeper than just physical garments. In most cases, they highlight African culture and traditions in events such as birth, death, and marriage; as a result, becoming a means of identity.

Image courtesy of Obinna Obioma

"Tog of Border"




DP -Lillian Djuane @llc_jones

MAKEUP - Morgan Everson - @morganeverson_

COSTUME AND WARDROBE STYLING - Wuraola Oladapo - @wuraolaoladapo

HAIR STYLING - Abiodun Adegawa - @finessedbyabbey

MODELSShannica Ewart - @shannewartShanae - @shanaestrachanElijah Calloway - @eli.lo.meinSebastian Duncan @bashlowkeyRomel Gaddy @roevisionsGabrielle O’Connor - @__blue.roses

Shawn Caldeira @shawncworkshopPHOTO ASSISTANTSSebastian Duncan @bashlowkeyRomel Gaddy @roevisions