Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Man and Hyena

One show not to miss is Pieter Hugo’s “The Hyena and Other Men” at Yossi Milo (through January 12). There a large and pale-colored group of photographs present the surreal spectacle of a group of Nigerian men who make their living by traveling around displaying their captive hyenas. The hyenas look nothing like one would expect, but rather like strange mythological beasts. The crudeness of their muzzles and chains bring to mind Aslan’s sacrifice in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”.

The photographer, Pieter Hugo, is a 31 year old self-taught, South African photographer who has been exhibiting all over the world since 2002. This is his account of the work:

These photographs came about after a friend e-mailed me an image taken on a cell-phone 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.

Through a journalist friend I eventually tracked down a Nigerian reporter, Adetokunbo Abiola, who said that he knew the 'Gadawan Kura' as they are known in Hausa (a rough translation: 'hyena handlers/guides').

A few weeks later I was on a plane to Lagos. Abiola met me at the airport and together we took a bus to Benin City where the 'hyena men' had agreed to meet us. However, when we got there they had already departed for Abuja.

In Abuja we found them living on the periphery of the city in a shantytown - a group of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons. It turned out that they were a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who used the animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines. The animal handlers were all related to each other and were practicing a tradition passed down from generation to generation. I spent eight days traveling with them.

The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn't interested in their performances. I realized that what I found fascinating was the hybridization 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. I started looking for situations where these contrasting elements became apparent. I decided to concentrate on portraits. I would go for a walk with one of the performers, often just in the city streets, and, if opportunity presented itself, take a photograph. We traveled around from city to city, often chartering public mini-buses.

I agreed to travel with the animal wranglers to Kanu in the northern part of the country. One of them set out to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver; everyone else, including myself and the hyenas, monkeys and rock pythons, hid in the bushes. When their companion signaled that he had agreed on a fare, the motley troupe of humans and animals leapt out from behind the bushes and jumped into the vehicle. The taxi driver was completely horrified. I sat upfront with a monkey and the driver. He drove like an absolute maniac. At one stage the monkey was terrified by his driving. It grabbed hold of my leg and stared into my eyes. I could see its fear.

Two years later I went back to Nigeria. The project felt unresolved and I was ready to engage with the group again. I look back at the notebooks I had kept while with them. The words 'dominance', 'codependence' and 'submission' kept appearing. These pictures depict much more than an exotic group of traveling performers in West Africa. The motifs that linger are the fraught relationships we have with ourselves, with animals and with nature.

The second trip was very different. By this stage there was a stronger personal relationship between myself and the group. We had remained in contact and they were keen to be photographed again. The images from this journey are less formal and more intimate.

The first series of pictures had caused varying reactions from people - inquisitiveness, disbelief and repulsion. People were fascinated by them, just as I had been by that first cell-phone photograph.

Many animal-rights groups contacted me, wanting to intervene (however, the keepers have permits from the Nigerian government). When I asked Nigerians, "How do you feel about the way they treat animals?", the question confused people. Their responses always involved issues of economic survival. Seldom did anyone express strong concern for the well-being of the creatures. Europeans and Americans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals but this question misses the point. Instead, perhaps, we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why Nigeria, the world's sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray.


Andy Frazer said...

If you can put aside the animal cruelty that must go along with this sort of relationship, both the photographs and accompanying story are fascinating.

Thanks for posting,

Andy Frazer

Russell Kaye said...


I couldn't stop looking at that first image.

I remembered this from the New Yorker - Eleven years ago:

Joanna Greenfield, Personal History, "HYENA," The New Yorker, November 11, 1996, p. 74
November 11, 1996 Issue


PERSONAL HISTORY about a hyena attack... Writer tells about being in Africa and seeing a hyena in the road in Kenya, taking a course on wildlife management... Spotted hyenas are the sharks of the savanna, superpredators and astounding recyclers of garbage. They hunt in large, giggling groups, running alongside their prey and eating chunks of its flesh until it slows down through loss of blood or shock, or sheer hopelessness and then the hyenas grab for the stomach and pull the animal to a halt with its own entrails or let it stumble into the loops and whorls of its own body. They eat the prey whole and cough back, like owls, the indigestible parts, such as hair and hooves. Writer had never wanted to work anywhere but Africa, but after writer graduated from college, a wildlife-reserve director from Israel said he needed someone to set up a breeding site for endangered animals and writer decided to go. When she got there, she was told the project had been postponed and was asked if she'd mind taking a job as a volunteer at another reserve, cleaning enclosures. Tells about a hyena that had been raised since a cub at the reserve. Writer tried to comfort the animal, and was attacked; the hyena sinking his teeth into her bone. Describes how an arm was mutilated, and how a leg was subsequently mutilated... She was driven to a clinic...

Anonymous said...

What is most shocking is the last picture where the monkey has a pet human - on a chain!

Unknown said...

your pictures really capture something special and intimate.

The Cat's Whiskers said...

these are very capturing images, so surreal.
I wonder how they feed the hyenas? It would be dangerous, when they take off the muzzles. And I wonder, if they extracted the baboons tusks?