“These photographs came about after a friend emailed me an image taken on a cellphone 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.” -Pieter Hugo
Pieter Hugo first learned of Nigeria’s Gadawan Kura, or hyena handlers, in 2003 when he received an image taken on a cell phone camera depicting several of these men with their beasts in the streets of Lagos. A newspaper in Hugo’s native South Africa published a similar image and identified the men as debt collectors, drug dealers, and thieves who enlisted hyenas as muscle in support of their criminal activities. With the help of friends in Nigeria, Hugo found the group in a shantytown outside of the capital, Abuja. They were not necessarily criminals, but rather what Hugo describes in an artist’s statement as “itinerant minstrels… a group of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons,” who subsist by staging performances and selling traditional medicine. Hugo traveled with the group for weeks at a time over the course of two years, taking a series of portraits of the men posing with their animals.
Much of Hugo’s work documents life on the peripheries of African societies, addressing the complex political realities of race and identity through the conventions of portraiture. The circumscribed scope of the genre forces an engagement on the level of the individual, an approach that skirts both sentimentality and the journalistic impulse to explain. He has photographed inhabitants of border towns and civil war zones, farm workers, and migrants, in each case rendering social flux and marginalization with reference to the human face and figure.
In Hugo’s series on the Gadawan Kura, entitled “The Hyena and Other Men,” the subjects are also animals. The titles of the photographs include the names of both the humans and animals depicted along with a reference to the various cities in Nigeria where the images where taken. These double portraits describe a trans-species relationship unfolding in a setting of poverty and uncontrolled urbanization. They constitute a stark tableau of life on the margins, but also raise questions of how and to what extent this life can be something shared by human and non-human subjects.
– Will Smith, The Hyena And Other Men, Museomagazine.com