When the Nigerian-German accomplished photographer, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko sought for her children to learn how to dance in a hip-hop dance class, little did she realize she was delving into something that would strike the very chord of the complex city of Lagos; something that had the propensity to reawaken the people’s consciousness with renewed aspirations and means of attaining them; something monumental.
Fascinated by the practised movements of the confronting dancers, Babaeko suddenly wanted to capture them with her lenses. This quest allied her with the Society for the Performing Arts of Nigeria (SPAN) in a mutual aspiration to project dance as a means of reaching out to young talented dancers in underserved areas, and providing them opportunities of training that they obviously lacked. What followed was the unveiling of Eko Moves, an exhibition of never-seen-before photographs by Babaeko capturing the beauty of dance and movements in time and space within the vibrant megacity of Lagos.
The photographs on show are an impressive visual chronicle of a two-year journey spotlighting ‘Eko’, the indigenous name for Lagos, in all its contradictions, with dancers ‘frozen in flight’ against backdrops of the people’s joie de vivre and creative spirit that characterize the city. Iconic locations, such as the Obalende bus stop, bustling Balogun market, Sandfill beach and “Dustbin Estate” are all enlivened by dancers in classical ballet attire, who simulate silent pose or hurtle through the scene in such acrobatic swiftness that catches the astonishment of the unassuming onlookers.
“I want to portray Lagos in a way we have never seen it before. It is almost like the dancers’ jumps elevate the spectator from the hard realities of life in Eko, making the viewer feel weightless and bringing a sense of hope to a sometimes seemingly hopeless situation,” Babaeko offers a hint to the political coloration lent by the deplorable conditions of the people and areas captured. This poses an inevitable thematic dilemma of politics and poetry, which she has finely manipulated. From the same derelict and decrepit human conditions often employed to diminish people in this part of the world, Babaeko contrives overwhelming joy, enthusiasm and hope that finally restores some measure of dignity to the society. “... My images are about the beauty and art of dance in a Nigerian environment. And there is almost no way you can take pictures in Nigeria without having a political angle in them. Everything we go through in this country on an everyday basis shouts politics; not to say bad politics. So it would have been very difficult to avoid that thematic even if I wanted to” declares Babaeko.
The remarkable images also speak in loud tone of the process that has brought about them. For the more regularly fashion-photographer, it was something different from Babaeko’s usual shoots, which may include some social-campaign message such as her breast cancer survivors series shot in controlled studio-setting. This time, she was challenged to storm the city markets, the bus stops, the beaches, the under-bridge-spaces, the water highways and shanty towns with the magnanimous volunteer-SPAN dancers who had had to exchange the comfort of their purpose-built studios and stages for open-weather performance. From sunlight to twilight by all means, Eko had to be moved by the message of the campaign – hope for the hopeless.
The exciting project also enlisted the cooperation of the everyday people, including the infamous ‘area boys’ and touts during the photo shoots, as Babaeko remarks, “... we were not harassed by anyone. Instead, there was curiosity and absolute admiration...,” which is confirmable in the behind-the-scene video of the making of the images. Nevertheless, it would have summed up a miracle if she got the ‘Danfo’ commercial bus drivers to support the dancer’s performances with their vehicles in some locations without expending some token fee tacitly understood by the avearage Nigerian as a ‘show of appreciation.’
In the words of documentary filmmaker and the Curator of the exhibition, Sandra Obiago, “Eko Moves is a beautiful convergence of two different art forms, photography and dance, against the ever moving backdrop of urban growth and challenges. When we see the haunting and stark images from “Dustbin Estate”, and underserved shanty town where SPAN has started dance classes for the talented youth, we realize that this exhibition showcases both photographic and performance artistry, as well as diverse strong social message on the need for equal educational opportunities for all.” Sandra Obiago having documented the activities of SPAN for years is also optimistic that Eko Moves is just the beginning of many of its kind.
Founded 10 years ago by Sarah Boulos, a Spaniard, SPAN is a non-profit, which has developed an impressive track record for training dancers of all ages in different forms of creativity, from classical ballet to African dance, ballroom salsa and hip hop. Income realized by SPAN from dance classes taught at private, well endowed schools is channelled to building a community center in Lagos Island. Domiciled in an uncompleted building donated by a company - SCOA Nigerian Limited, to support SPAN’s noble aims, the training centre will offer free dance classes to some of the poorest areas of the sprawling Lagos island metropolis. Identifying Yetunde Babaeko as walking into the scheme of things at the right time, Sarah Bolous assures that a measure of the proceeds of the EKo Moves exhibition together with further funds -raised will also support renovations at the centre.
In addition to demonstrating a new kind of collaborations amongst the entire spectrum of creativity, Eko Moves is remarkable for testing the resolve of the private sector to support art as Dutch Bank, a multinational focusing on the African market, bankrolls the project. While Lagos may have had its fair share of the Eko Moves, it is expected that stories could be woven around iconic locations in other cities in the country to rejuvenate their self-consciousness as this serves the long term aim of a widespread youth development championed by the project.