What does oil wealth look like?
That’s the question Christian Lutz sets out to answer in Tropical Gift, the latest exhibition at the excellent HOST Gallery near Old Street. Following three visits to Nigeria in 2009 and 2010, the Swiss photographer has put together a striking collection of images documenting the obscene contradictions lying at the heart of the Nigerian oil industry. Moving between worlds, Lutz captures luxurious private beach clubs, business meetings and swanky SUVs, while simultaneously confronting us with the impoverished communities, skeletal trees and viscous, polluted waters that are their direct consequence. Prosperity and hardship here are two sides of the same slippery coin; oil seeps into people’s everyday lives, leaving a dark stain across the Niger Delta.
Lutz’s pictures construct a powerful internal dialogue which flits from image to image, weaving half-finished stories and strange juxtapositions into a compelling whole. Large, shiny vehicles glide between frames, while sombre suited businessmen at the Nigerian National Petroleum Company sit fingering their papers and staring into space. At the Lagos Yacht Club, Europeans in evening attire stand amid the debris of their lavish New Year’s Eve celebrations, happily waving sparklers, several dozen tiny flashes in the semi-darkness. Meanwhile, a giant gas flare lights up a thunderous sky over the delta. There are black, glistening pools, fringed by dead or dying vegetation, and crystal-clear private swimming pools, fringed by barbed wire to keep out intruders. For one horrible moment, what looks like a corpse trails awkwardly across some paving stones; closer inspection shows it to be a fallen statue, broken off at the knees, face down, uselessly clutching a sword, the victim of a Joint Task Forces attack on the Gbaramatu Kingdom Palace in 2009.
It’s not hard to think highly of these pictures; with their sinister, muted colours and often unsettling composition, they are a grim report from a grim situation, and create a sense of detached foreboding that probably quite accurately reflects the reaction many viewers will have to the subject matter. This detachment is troubling – it’s far easier to gaze with horrified fascination at snapshots of complacent affluence, environmental destruction and human rights abuses several thousand miles away, than to actually do something about them. Even so, I would not underestimate the significance of a small gallery space showcasing critical work that tackles the intricacies and evils of the oil industry. At a time when larger institutions such as Tate continue to apply a veneer of social acceptability to oil companies by accepting and even celebrating their sponsorship, Lutz’s photographs at HOST offer a glimpse of how things might be done differently.
HOST’s show is supported by Amnesty International, and flyers about their campaign to stop gas flaring can be picked up from the gallery.
You can find out more about Tropical Gift and see images from the series on Lutz’s website, where you can also buy the images in book form.
There are some interesting articles and resources on art and oil at PLATFORM’s website. For info on the Tate sponsorship controversy, see the liberatetate campaign and art not oil, plus interesting debate here and here.
The show continues until 1st March.
1-5 Honduras Street, London