“These photographs came about after a friend emailed me an image taken on a cellphone (sic) through a car window in Lagos, Nigeria, which depicted a group of men walking down the street with a hyena in chains. A few days later I saw the image reproduced in a South African newspaper with the caption ‘The Streets of Lagos’. Nigerian newspapers reported that these men were bank robbers, bodyguards, drug dealers, debt collectors. Myths surrounded them. The image captivated me”.1
Pieter Hugo was born and raised in Cape Town, where he continues to live. He is a self-taught photographer who picked up his first camera at the age of ten – the first image he ever had printed was that of a homeless person. He started his career working in the film industry in Cape Town and progressed to the world of art by completing a two-year residency at Fabrica, the Benetton Group’s communications research centre, in Italy. He has since won various awards, included amongst these is the first prize, Portraits section, World Press Photo, 2006; the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, 2007; the Young Director Award, Cannes Lions Festival, 2011; and most recently he was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
The Hyena and Other Men series, from which this image comes, is probably Hugo’s best known body of work. It was published in two sizes, the larger format, like this example, was produced in an edition of 5 + 1 Artist’s Proof (sheet size: 112 by 110cm) and the smaller format in an edition of 8 + 1 Artist’s Proof (sheet size: 63 by 61cm). Most of the works from this series, including the image in this lot, were sold out from the Stevenson gallery, which represents him, soon after they first became available. He commonly uses a Hasselblad medium format camera, preferring the 4x5 and 6x6 formats, as was used for this series.
Hugo made two trips to Nigeria to photograph the ‘Hyena Men’, his initial visit in 2005 was followed by a return visit in 2007. This image was shot on his first visit. What interests Hugo about these subjects is “the hybridisation of the urban and the wild” and “the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals – sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel”.2
The ‘Hyena Men’ exist on the periphery of society – a group of men, a young girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons. The group of nomadic troubadours travel Nigeria entertaining crowds with their performances, using their animals to amuse and to encourage the sale of their traditional medicines. The animal handlers themselves build their self-confidence by employing a variety of concoctions: herbs, powders, roots and amulets, which are purported to protect them from injury, facilitate the trapping of the beasts and to assist them with the training. All the handlers have permits from the Nigerian government allowing them to keep the domesticated wild animals as pets.
In a country rife with unemployment and poverty, Pieter Hugo chooses to avert his gaze from the ostensibly pathetic results and focuses his attention on the ingenuity and inventive nature inherent in the human spirit. As the social and political conditions in Nigeria and much of the rest of Africa remain oppressive, Hugo brings to us images of hope and enterprise – a vision of creativity and imagination that furthers a sustainable lifestyle for those brave enough to venture into the unknown.
Archivally mounted and framed behind raised UV glass.
Acquired directly from the artist by the current owner.