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Capturing African Everyday: Aisha Augie-Kuta

WRITTEN BY: Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman

DesignNigeria

As a female Nigerian artist, while exploring issues of gender and identity in her personal projects, she keeps herself open to the exciting and inspirational aspects of African everyday. We chatted with Aisha Augie-Kuta about her artistic practice and body of work, including her recent photography series capturing the Mud Huts in the Fulani settlement in Abuja.

Your work spans across film, painting, and photography. How do these different media interact in your creative process? What is the common thread that connects these various media?

I was a creative child and my father aided my self-expression by getting me a camera, crayons and paper at an early age. I loved films and my most memorable was 'The Wizard of Oz' amongst others. It was very colorful and full of imagination. I noticed early on that one could evoke feelings or emotions and tell exceptional stories using a combination of light, colour and sound, so that would be my common thread; light and colour being more prominent… I used to separate each medium but they are all one now: One creates inspiration for the other. 

Your Northern Nigerian heritage is very important to you, and in many ways you are somewhat a double rarity in the sense of being a female artist from the North of Nigeria whilst also being mainly resident in Abuja. What are the challenges you face in this role? Are you finding that there are more women artists emerging? 

Oh yes, there are more women artists emerging by the day. I am constantly getting e-mails, social media messages and calls from women/young artists, and even from parents that are interested in pushing their female kids towards the arts. That never was the case. It was truly hard in the beginning to convince even my family members that I wanted to become an artist. We are very conservative in the north and most people saw art, especially photography, as a man’s skill and a waste of time. I have overcome skepticism, and once I found my voice there was no turning back. I quit my job as a human resource manager and jumped into the deep end, instead of fighting those who were against it, I educated them. Perceptions change with exposure and information, and my photography has helped a lot in that aspect. 

Your work in photography spans portraits, landscapes, fashion, aerials, documentary, events, and even some action. What is the recurrent artistic approach that ties all of these areas of focus into your artistic practice?

I gain a lot of inspiration from nature and this has been my guiding force with whatever image I make. These areas of focus all come together based on that. I enhance what I would find within the environment by creating the image and boosting it in post as natural as possible. I tend to juxtapose a lot and I have them hidden in the photographs, some are obvious and most are not, but I see it and it helps with a sense of balance for me. 

You often have the phrase: 'begin with the end in mind'. I'm sure it has wider ramifications, but it's one I can relate to in several ways. In a creative sense how does this influence you? Do you think perhaps the quest or focus on 'the end' somehow affects the creative process particularly with the design aspect of your practice? Does it negatively affect the intuitive aspects that are so essential to creativity?

This phrase came about more from a psychological point in my life. In my bid to focus on all the plans, I stumbled on it. I had a problem with finishing whatever I started. It was my way of reminding myself that I had values and goals that I was working towards. It is a quote by Steven Covey, the author of the book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People'. When it came to my work there was never an end. Each body of work triggered another one and it made me feel like nothing was ever complete. I wouldn't even share my work because a painting would inspire a photograph or a film and vice versa. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had long term work that came from short term ones. This is one of the reasons I never specialized in one field of photography for example. I am an open book that never ends and this does not affect me negatively, but allows me to explore and see what happens in my creative space. 

As this is the design edition for ABA in 2014, I’d like to discuss a little bit about the design aspect of your work. How do you engage with design within your photography practice? Is post-production heavy in your creative processes?

In post-production I generally enhance what is already there. I am currently pushing boundaries in post-production and creating a world that exists in my head. I would normally do that with paintings but it has crossed over to my photography. I find that textures, shadows and silhouettes are increasingly taking up space in my photography practice. 

How do you respond to the social, political and economic realities of Africa through photography? And in relation to this, how do you envision/look to the future of Africa through photography?

I tell it like it is but with growth, hope and positivity taking centre stage. Even the worst of things have a bright side to it. We are a growing continent, and we have our many problems. For me this is always an inspiration, and it helps to guide me by diverting attention towards these realities. I have found that I love to make statements on these in retrospect, it wasn't planned. We are telling our own stories and this has allowed us to look inward. I now know that we have it all right here and I have unknowingly created a voice that is being heard with my work especially in the northern parts of Nigeria. Photography is a crucial aspect in the growth of our continent; it is and will continue to be paramount in our historical build up. It is more than a means of expression.  

When you have found time for personal projects, 'identity' and ‘gender’ appear to be recurring themes. Looking at the variety of your projects that engage with the difficulties that African women face in daily life, what do you mainly address regarding (the relationship of) identity and gender in your work?

The African woman, especially in Nigeria, is almost always not just a person; she is a wife, a mother, and a daughter. Her identity is based on what family she is from or who she is married to. Even accomplished women are not seen for who they are outside this realm. My obsession with identity started from childhood. Being from a family that combined mixed race, tribe and religion, I was somewhat confused when it came to my identity. It took a long time for me (felt like a lifetime) to find my identity and stick to it. It was a silent struggle. My photography adapted to this, and personal projects like my tribal mark project and female empowerment project resulted from this. The societal influences on gender in Africa are very strong and there are too many areas to explore in this aspect. I constantly delve into this from time to time.

It's easy to assume that a more visceral approach is utilized with your paintings than with your photography, but I'm not quite so sure, especially considering the areas that you've experimented with... Double exposure, software-generated post-production, using Photoshop etc… An example that readily springs to mind is the photomontage you made for the 'Imagining Paris' exhibition where an image mimicking Le Louvre was framed within an Abuja foreground with mirrored-images of models posing in front of the pyramid. What was the idea behind the photomontage? And also, how does your experience in fashion styling tie into the use of digital tools and the overall setting?

I had the same model in the montage and the concept was about a young Nigerian woman exploring her sense of fashion with Paris in mind. Many Nigerians dream of traveling to different countries around the world to pursue one dream or the other. This was a visual journey through the mind of the subject, an 'Alice in wonderland' sort of idea. She was dreaming of an explosion of her Nigerian fashion heritage combined with the Parisian stereotype she had succumbed to through the media. This was expressed through her sense of fashion; she adorned herself with different Nigerian fabrics/prints combined with western designs and the typical painters beret, which was her assumption of what a person on the streets of Paris would wear. It was her way of seeing herself in the life she dreamed of. And, my love for juxtaposition inspired the montage.   

What is your approach to story telling and narrative in your work? Can you tell us about the aerial photography series of Abuja and Lagos?

Narrative in photography may be limited to seconds in time but there is always a story, however short. With motion photography it allows for much more to be explored. I like to use the two whenever I can. The aerial photography series storyline began from Sokoto to Kano, Kano to Abuja, Abuja to Benue, and Benue to Lagos. It was a series on migration and water, which led to a story of topography in relation to humanity, and population: our need to survive, expand and explore. The Abuja city series on it's own was more about the planned layout and the beauty of one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. I felt the need to document this for posterity. 

What was the idea behind your photo series capturing the interiors of the mud-huts in Abuja? I feel that you, as an artist, surrendered to the wild abundance of everyday things…

I definitely did! I have lived around the Fulani people for most of my life, and they have a rich culture and history documented since 300s AD. I had come into contact with this particular community through a training project on photography with some orphans in Abuja. The orphanage home was right by the Fulani settlement. As part of my tribal mark project I decided to create portraits of some of their body art. I felt like I knew everything about this wonderful tribe already but then it hit me when I entered into one of the huts. They lived in art! Each hut was unique in arrangement of everyday things due to the little space they had. Each woman was proud of her throne within the oval huts; the more 'THINGS' you had the more prominent you were within the nomadic community. I got lost in the organized chaos and the aesthetics. I would not take this in alone; this needed to be shared. I had limited time due to the shy nature of the women, but I am slowly gaining their trust to return.

How do these photographs weave narratives of materiality, time and space? Also what kind(s) of spatial experience did you intend to offer to the viewers? 

The material culture of this tribe is almost preserved within this one space. You had everything anthropologically possible to show who they are and how they lived if this were to be preserved as is. The sensory qualities within the huts are astounding. I tried to get the viewer to see it from a larger perspective. The huts were pretty small and cramped but using a wide-angle lens expanded the space for a much better perspective of how much was put into the design of the huts. I intended to have the viewer imagine being in the space in reality. 

Architectural elements of the huts, interior structures that are built and the material occupants interact in a very unique way, almost revealing different layers of memory. What is your take on issues of materiality, ephemerality, time and memory in these photographs?

These huts are semi-permanent structures created in between nomadic periods. They travel with these elements and pick up more along the way. There are posters, pictures, day-to-day products and a whole lifetime within these walls. Being able to have it captured in an image in a way that could never be replicated is exciting. There are definitely different layers of memory and many stories with everything one touches within the huts.

How do you engage with local communities through your artistic practice? Apart from showcasing your work, what levels of interaction do you have with communities on the field?

I practically become a member of the community. It takes time but with frequent visits, I allow them to get to know me and vice versa. I never want to be intrusive. There is a lot to learn from each other and even though I also do not want to interfere with their lifestyle or way of living, I help as much as I can within my power with basic issues affecting them. It is always a mutual relationship, and the relationship never truly ends. 

Is there a particular photograph, an image or film that single-handedly influenced your practice as an artist?

Yes there is. It is a black and white image by Sunmi Smart-Cole. I saw it at a family friend’s house when I was a child. I bombarded them with questions on how it was created and begged for a camera after that. I got a camera from my dad on my birthday, that with some rolls of film to play with. The fun hasn't stopped since then.