J.D. ‘Okai Ojeikere (born in 1930, in Ojomu Emai, Nigeria, died in 2014, in Lagos, Nigeria) was raised in rural Southwestern Nigeria in a village where photography was an exotic luxury. In 1950, he bought a modest Brownie D camera, and a neighbour taught him the rudiments of photography. In 1951 he began to seek work from the Ministry of Information in Ibadan, repeatedly sending the same letter: “I would be very grateful if you would use me for any kind of work in your photographic department.” His persistence paid off in 1954, when he was offered a position as a darkroom assistant. Just as Nigeria was shedding colonial rule in 1961, he became a still photographer for Televison House Ibadan, a division of the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services, the first television station in Africa. Jazz musician Steve Rhodes was director of programming and Ojeikere has recalled the spirit of the time: “Just after independence, we were full of ideas and energy. We were going to conquer the world.” In 1963 he moved to Lagos to work for West Africa Publicity.
In 1967 he joined the Nigerian Arts Council, and during their festival of the following year he began to take series of photographs dedicated to Nigerian culture. This body of work, now consisting of thousands of images, has become a unique anthropological, ethnographic, and documentary national treasure. Most African photographers of his generation only worked on commission; this project, unique in its genre, flourished without any commercial support. The Hairstyle series, which consists of close to a thousand photographs, is the largest and the most thorough segment of Ojeikere’s archive. “To watch a ‘hair artist’ going through his precise gestures, like an artist making a sculpture, is fascinating. Hairstyles are an art form,” Ojeikere has commented. He photographs hairstyles every day in the street, in offices, at parties. He records each subject systematically: from the rear, sometimes in profile, and occasionally head-on. Those from the rear are almost abstract and best reveal the sculptural aspect of the hairstyles. For Ojeikere, this is a never ending project as hairstyles evolve with fashion: “All these hairstyles are ephemeral. I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them. I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge. Art is life. Without art, life would be frozen.”