Learning from Artists’ Archives Goes Global

Last fall, as part of our year-long Carolina Seminar series centered around issues of artists’ archives, the Learning from Artists’ Archives team was joined by Nigerian photographer and Director of the Nlele Institute, Uche Okpa-Iroha. The Nlele Institute is a photography training program and resource center in Lagos, Nigeria.

Left to right: JJ Bauer, Denise Anthony, Carol Magee, Uche Okpa-Iroha

Okpa-Iroha shared with us an issue his team at Nlele was working on: how to use archival materials as teaching tools and resources for the Institute’s student photographers, and how to incorporate an archival component into the Institute’s mission.

In 2015, Okpa-Iroha, with photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi and the former director of the Goethe Institut Nigeria, Marc-Andre Schmachtel, discovered a large stock of photographic negatives in a darkroom of a building formerly occupied by Nigeria’s federal press agency, before the agency moved to Abuja from Lagos. Okpa-Iroha and his colleagues were able to recover the boxes of materials, which include decades worth of documentation of Nigeria’s political history and cultural heritage. Volunteers and staff at Nlele are currently in the process of inventorying the negatives. These materials are, to Okpa-Iroha’s knowledge, unavailable in any form anywhere else in Nigeria. They have the potential to play a crucial role in the cultural memory of the country.

By fostering aspiring photographers’ artistic, intellectual, and professional development, Nlele addresses a lack of institutional support and professional photographic training in Nigeria. Nlele’s immediate goals in preserving these materials are to: (1) Provide a readily accessible resource collection for training young photographers on documentary photographic method and style, and to (2) Educate them about Nigerian history and culture in order to more critically engage them in the documentation of its present and future. In addition to preserving the photographic material of the students trained there, Nlele has a long-term goal of identifying, acquiring, and properly preserving other Nigerian photographic collections for use as training materials and eventually for public access and research. This will entail developing the resources and infrastructure to maintain the archive over time.

In order to facilitate this initiative, Carol Magee (one of the Learning from Artists’ Archives Primary Investigators, Chair of UNC’s Department of Art and Art History, and specialist in contemporary African art history) and I will be traveling to Lagos this month to conduct a condition assessment of the negatives. The goal of this project is to assess the Nlele Institute’s collection of former Nigerian press agency photographic negatives in terms of its scope, research value, current condition, and preservation needs. The assessment will be used by the Nlele Institute as a guide for future collections assessments, as a roadmap to completing its in-progress inventory project, and as an evidentiary component of requests to fund the preservation, digitization, and archival management of the negatives.

In the Learning from Artists’ Archives program, we’ve amassed a body of experience and resources to share with NC artists, collaborating with them to “think archivally” and tailor archiving habits and practices that meet their needs. We’re excited to go global with this preparation and openness to collaboration and exchange. I’ll be reporting back here about this project and our journey, including information about our assessment methodology, so stay tuned!