Inspired by the art of Nigerian buskers.
When photographer Lorenzo Vitturi first visited Lagos in 2014, he expected to find the same gentrification he found in London. He imagined he would find colorful neighborhoods demolished, razed and replaced by sterile skyscrapers. He wants a chain store and a shopping center, where there are mothers and stores.
In most cases, his intuition is correct. Mass expulsions are common in Africa’s most populous and fastest-growing cities.
But on Lagos island, one of the city’s oldest parts, Vitturi is happy to find what he calls “reverse gentrification”. Through the bridge connecting the mainland and the island is the place that the local government broke, and the expansive Balogun market, there is a supplier of plastic furniture, cleaning supplies, bedding, basket, lipsticks and hair products. Over the past two decades, these booths have steadily expanded and driven all the international Banks, airlines and real estate companies that once lived in the city.
The last remaining legacy of the regional companies is the 27-story financial trust house. Skyscrapers – once rows of cubicles and buzzing business executives – are empty. The grey pink Sahara gradually covers each surface by rotating windowless Windows through abandoned buildings. “I like the contrast between the grey interior and the chaos of the external market,” Vitturi said. “It’s great because these Nigerian street vendors are taking back land from big companies.”
Of course, these companies have not completely disappeared. “They just moved to another place,” Vitturi explained. But Balogun, its enterprising supplier and undisturbed crowd, has captured his imagination.
Vitturi’s “Money Must Be Made” book is a celebration of the market, featuring multiple visits to Lagos by portrait suppliers, and Vitturi stitched together product images by cutting them without having to collate them.
We discussed with Vitturi the reasons why he went to Balogun and how he put his books together. The length and clarity of the interview.
What brought you to Lagos?
I was invited to be an artist for the African artists foundation, an art nonprofit in Lagos. They read my previous book, dalston college, which is based on the ridley road market, a very diverse African Caribbean food market in east London. I’ve never been to Nigeria, I haven’t even been to the African continent, but I’m actually quite familiar with the Nigerian culture, the Nigerian food, and I’ve lived in this part of London for a long time.
It looks like you have something on the market.
I guess so! I didn’t intend to concentrate on another market at first. But then I found Balogun’s incredible story. In London, markets are fighting a bitter losing battle, in Lagos the opposite is true. The market won.
What surprises you most about Balogun?
The crowd was unstoppable. There’s constant movement. I like the feeling there. For some, this can be a bit stressful. But for me, I just love energy.
The other thing is creativity, the intelligence of suppliers. They invented new ways of selling each day to gain a business advantage. One thing I hope I can capture in this book is the audio technology used by different manufacturers. For example, the tailor balanced a sewing machine on his head. For one thing, he has these big scissors, and in fact he’s like an instrument. He will turn them on and off and make this TCH-TCH sound in fast mode or rhythm. So in this crazy market mess, you can hear the noise, you can find the tailor.
You can see in my book that some vendors are inventing new art installations every day. For example, you’ll see a man selling simple things like different soap and toothpaste. But he arranged all these things, and to me it looked like an altar.
Interspersed in the image of the supplier, you can use the materials you buy in the market, including your collages and sculptures. Why?
My ideas for collages and sculpture come from suppliers. I was inspired by their art. But it’s important to show all the things that are being sold and put different things in different environments so that you can see them in new ways.
What are the most common goods to sell?
Take cloth, for example. Nigeria has a long and important textile production tradition. It was an important part of Nigeria’s economy. But now the Chinese have cheaper alternatives. These are just copies of the traditional African model, but the prices are unbelievable – super cheap.
I also bought MATS. These are made in Ghana, made of plastic – because they are used on the street. So they must be cheap, light and durable. But I love their beauty and diversity, so when I take portraits on the market, I use them as a temporary background. Later, I deconstructed them and used them in some of my sculptures.
In many portraits, you don’t actually see the supplier’s face. In some cases, they cover their faces by raising the items they sell. How did it come about?
I started showing them this way, because most of the women I photographed were Muslim. They’ll tell me, ‘I want to take a picture, but I don’t want to show up. “But it’s really good for me because these suppliers are very connected to what they sell every day. This is their livelihood and life.
How did you come up with the idea that you had to make money?
One man I met in the market was actually wearing a “must make money” shirt. When I asked him about it, he told me it should be an informal Lagos maxim. People from all over the country go there to do business, make money and make their dreams come true.
What do Balogun people think of your book?
I haven’t shown my final product on the market yet. Although I had a show in Lagos for the African artists foundation.
When photographers, especially western photographers, go abroad and click on a photo to leave, I really don’t like it. In fact, people in these pictures never see their own images or see how they behave.
So to avoid that, when I put the book together, I printed a series of dummies or models and presented them to different people in the market. I’d love to see their reactions, good or bad, and I’ve actually published some responses at the end of the book.
“I don’t understand why you’re leaving so much space,” one woman said. I think it’s interesting because, of course, it’s crowded in Lagos and every inch of space is taken up. So, in this case, the idea of white unused pages makes no sense.
In any case, I am considering how to present my finished book to Balogun suppliers in another performance.
Have you considered setting up a booth there to sell copies?
I’ve thought about it. The problem is, there’s absolutely no room for the new booth!