When J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere was growing up in Nigeria, photography was not a commonplace pursuit; cameras were seen as a luxury item, as they were largely unaffordable and hard to come by. But Ojeikere didn’t let that stop him, and against the odds went on to become one of the greatest African photographers of the 20th century. He was born in 1930 in Ovbiomu-Emai, a small rural village in south-western Nigeria and at the age of 20, managed to buy a Brownie, one of the most simple and inexpensive types of camera around. This began a career that spanned more than 50 years.
Ojeikere became one of the only photographers in his region, first starting as a darkroom assistant in 1954 at the Ministry of Information in Ibadan, Nigeria’s first most populous city, then going on to become a studio photographer at Africa’s first television station, Television House Ibadan. His career went from strength to strength, later working at West Africa Publicity in Lagos and then joining the emerging Nigerian Arts Council in 1967.
With the Arts Council, Ojeikere he began travelling across the country documenting Nigerian culture. In 1968, he started working on the project that made him famous: his extensive documentation of intricate Nigerian hair styles. He captured over a thousand pictures of different African women’s hair and traditional head ties, forming a series of both historical and anthropological significance for its immortalization of such an ethereal yet integral element of culture. The series of photographs captures the range of popular day-to-day styles, as well as ceremonial styles, in both the street and the studio. His style was simplistic, the photos taken mainly from a close-up perspective from the back with no backdrops or props. Using soft lighting and black-and-white printing drew attention to the elaborate and elegant architectural quality of the hair.
The styles symbolised different life events, social statuses and geographical area and were often passed down through generations. They were usually nicknamed for the shapes they imitated, such as pineapples, crabs or bridges, and reflect the uniqueness and diversity of Nigerian culture. Take a look at a selection from the series, below.