The part of you that can't help staring when you pass a celebrity on the sidewalk, the part of you that can't quite turn away from the freeway pileup; the part of you that is as likely to gawk at the uncanny and unseemly as the beautiful; and the part of you that is as easily taken in by the campy as the profound: All of these parts of you will be engaged — variously seduced, repulsed, disturbed — by Pieter Hugo's large color photographs presently on view at Shoshana Wayne Gallery.
PIETER HUGO, CHRIS NKULO AND PATIENCE UMEH, ENUGU, NIGERIA (2008)
Occupying the main space is a selection of images from Hugo's "Nollywood" series, shot in the southern Nigerian film-production centers of Enugu and Asaba — both hubs in the Nollywood industry, which, according to a recent UNESCO report, is larger than Hollywood and second to Bollywood, producing more than 1,000 low-budget films a year. Though all portraits in essence, the photos vary from those seeming almost as if they could be promotional shots or stills from movies, to more candid views of costumed and made-up actors between takes, to what seem more posed representations. Hugo is both a photojournalist and a fine-art image-maker from South Africa. His sitters are professionals in the craft of inhabiting characters in front of the lens and, for the purposes of these pictures, are simultaneously themselves, characters and stand-ins for and personifications of an onion's worth of layers of cultural entities and phenomena. The question is, who is representing whom and what in pictures of a machete-wielding, dark-skinned midget who appears to have been rendered darker with a layer of grease makeup; an African man–turned–black devil via makeup and prosthetics, sitting on a bench with a lady dressed to the Nigerian nines; a slightly bored and irritated-looking young woman, sitting topless on the edge of a bed with a fake knife, failing to convince us that it's actually run through her; or an off-duty zombie relaxing with a soda pop? No less capable of simultaneously raising one's levels of curiosity and discomfort are a small group of photos, in Shoshana Wayne's west gallery, from Hugo's "The Hyena Men" series. Shot while he traveled with a troupe of Nigerian wild-animal charmers, these photos, which include men walking massive hyenas with makeshift leashes and muzzles, deal in a kind of extreme exoticism in which "other" equals "out there." And yet, much as with the Nollywood images, as otherworld foreign as these images seem at times, they also seem strangely familiar, like we're prepared for them somehow, having spent our lives gorging on spectacle that exists in a kind of Bizarro World correlation to the spectacles on view here — like we're ready to meet them halfway from just the other side of the looking glass.
SHOSHANA WAYNE GALLERY: 2525 Michigan Ave. (Bergamot Station) B1, Santa Monica; Tues.-Fri., 10-6, Sat., 11-5:30, through May 29. (310) 453-7535, shoshanawayne.com.