Photography Exhibit Opening at Host Gallery on March 12, 2010 – London
On an unseasonably cold Friday night in east London, a crowd of photographers, journalists and activists gathered at Host Gallery in London for the opening of photographer Ed Kashi’s photo exhibition, Curse of the Black Gold. It features images taken in the Niger Delta since the discovery and extraction of oil in the region began five decades ago. Amidst the cold gloom of London, Kashi’s images burned with the fire of oil flares, with the desire of displaced families and with the brutality of a military seeking to protect the government against its own people.
It was the strident dichotomy between resources and poverty that fed Ed Kashi’s need to return again and again to the Niger Delta region to capture images of the people living on or near oil-rich property that has regularly been appropriated for state use over the last fifty years. During the course of the exhibition opening, we heard from Kashi, members of Revenue Watch Institute and Publish What You Pay, two sponsors of the exhibition, as well as from Oxford professor and economic development expert Paul Collier. Also there was Hauwa Yusuf, the London Bureau Chief for the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority. Lending a rather powerful presence to the intimate event, Ms. Yusuf filmed several interviews with the sponsors and with Kashi, and kept the camera rolling for most of the evening.
Early in the evening, I spoke with Robert Bailey, a journalist who covers business news in the Arab world. He said he was drawn to the event by a general curiosity about the region, which is not in his coverage area, and which he considers to be too dangerous to visit as an individual. Backed by camera and crew or a newspaper, there is some sense of safety, or control, he said, but even with a support system, places like Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta are no-go areas, as the risk to one’s life is apparently just too high. Naïve as it felt in the moment, Bailey’s comment brought me back to the most basic questions about quotidian survival. What do the people who live there do to stave off the anarchy of fear? Is it just the outsiders who fear coming in, or is there a constant sense of fear for anyone’s safety in those “no-go” areas? How aware are the Niger Deltans of the irony of the relative poverty of most inhabitants in the region? And is there a sense among those who live in the shadow of oil drums of a more prosperous future?
The answers seem to lie in the photos Kashi presents: stark, remarkably colorful images of humans set-off by unnatural images of burning oil, pillaged villages and open slaughtering fields; and of children, wide-eyed, partially clothed, running and playing as you might imagine a child would, but running and playing under the light of fuel burning from oil storage or refinery pipes, and against the backdrops of giant oil drums, or burnt homes, or now fishless rivers. It is clear from the presentation of the human subjects in the photos that the images are not taken simply for shock value. While Kashi is open about his desire to show, imagistically, the wrong being done to the Niger Deltans, we see something beyond the two dimensions of each frame: we see people carrying on with their lives in a difficult environment, until they reach a moment when they cannot. In one photograph a woman stares into the camera from the rubble of what had been her home, but was pillaged and burned by soldiers of the Nigerian state militia after one soldier was killed the week previous to the photo’s advent while trying to foil the kidnapping of an Italian ex-pat. What had that Italian been doing in the Niger Delta? What was the story behind the kidnapping attempt? What did the soldiers do after a day’s work spent destroying a remote village?
The statistics behind Kashi’s images of disparity in wealth and living conditions are startling. Nigeria is the eighth most populous country in the world, with more than 100 million people. 4.5 million of those people live in the Niger Delta region, which takes up approximately 7.5% of the land mass of Nigeria. 75-80% of Nigeria’s annual revenues are derived from oil production; and US$180 million is generated every single day from oil extraction and production from the Niger Delta, with many of the area’s oil resources still undiscovered. And yet, a Niger Deltan who lives on the land producing this wealth, lives on average on just US $1 per day. It is this disparity that Kashi states unabashedly “is unsustainable”, and which he has sought to bring to a larger audience through his photographs. And according to Dauda Garuba, Revenue Watch’s Nigeria Program Coordinator, it is this disparity which has led to a new slogan in the Niger Delta, in relation to its vast potential for even great wealth: “Leave the oil under [the ground].”
The idea of leaving the resources untapped until better governance can assure a just distribution of wealth is backed by the work of Oxford University Professor Paul Collier. Collier is the Director of Oxford’s Center for African Economics, and stated without reservation that the situation in the Niger Delta represents nothing less than “plunder.”
“What should belong to many has been expropriated for the few,” he said, and more importantly, that the present mismanagement of the resource wealth is expropriating the country’s future. Such wealth could be transformative, but what determines whether natural resource wealth creates plunder or transformation depends on a “decision chain”: first, natural resources must be discovered; once discovered, the revenues must be harnessed for society, which means taxing properly and maintaining economic transparency; and finally, the money earned must be wisely used by the government. Collier argues that management of the chain must be put in place before more oil is taken out of the ground, and that any break in that decision chain represents an illimitable chink in the system. At present, due to the mismanagement of Nigeria’s oil resources, US$700 billion later, Collier argues, there are no more real assets in Nigeria as a result of that income generation, only US$700 billion fewer assets.
The result? The Leave it in the Ground slogan, a “counsel of despair” that Collier, Kashi and the exhibit sponsors all argued represents a crisis not just for the Niger Delta, and not just for Nigeria. Rather, it is emblematic of a much larger problem of what can happen to the whole of Africa, the last frontier for resource discovery, if resources continue to be mismanaged. Kashi’s images have the power to reach out and starkly exemplify the problems inherent in resource mismanagement, but there must be a thorough rewiring of the circuitry behind the images for real change to occur.
Ed Kashi’s exhibit, Curse of the Black Gold, will be on display at Host Gallery in London from March 8 through April 3, 2010.
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Allison Ouvry. © 2010.