Man tames beast. Somewhere, out there, in a barren land. Who are they? Why do they have hyenas and monkeys on leashes? Are the animals being domesticated as pets or are they weapons or perhaps just curiosities? None of these questions are answered, only raised, in this striking exhibition, “The Hyena and Other Men.”
Pieter Hugo's photographs are portraits of animal charmers in Nigeria. Against a backdrop of a bleak, dry, dust-choked landscape, a muscular African man holds a knotted rope connected to thick chains bound to a most unusual companion. The man wears a combination of a Western-style sweatshirt and a skirt decorated with colorful hanging tassels. He has flip-flops on and numerous chains around his ankles. Wooden stick in hand, the man stands in control.
“The Hyena and Other Men”
Yossi Milo Gallery
525 W. 25th St.
Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Through Jan. 12
A large spotted hyena with a knitted muzzle sits in shackles at his master's side. Glimpses of the non-industrial town peek through from the background. A few roadside vendor carts, some chickens, old tires, half-demolished shacks sparsely fill the dirt road. The flat light mutes the colors to soft browns and grays. No distinct signs or markers reveal the location.
Pieter Hugo's camera boldly investigates dominance and submission.
In a rural, out of the way place these Hyena Men exist. Because context has been omitted, time stands still or has not happened at all. In a slightly closer portrait, a man sits next to a monkey. Here the roles being played are the blurriest. The monkey is dressed in children's clothing. His arm rests intimately on the man's leg. Despite this strange affectionate gesture, the monkey is chained to his master nonetheless.
Another series included in this exhibition is “Honey Collectors.” These are photographs of individual workers in the forests of Ghana. In “Kwadwo Konado, Wild Honey Collector,” a figure stands camouflaged amid green trees. A mask made out of a black plastic bag hides his face. Eyes and nose are visible through slits. Pictured on his green shirt is a cartoon Mickey Mouse. This symbol being so prominent becomes his face, his identity. He has a red sweatshirt tied around his neck like a cape. With this makeshift cape and his left hand authoritatively placed on his hip, the man seems to mimic a superhero character.
These photographs share a uniformity of style – the placement of the subject in the center, a frontal view, straightforward camera angle, and similar proximity. The prints are oversized, filling your field of vision. Because of the large scale, every detail is magnified.
The fluctuating shifts from man's dominance over the natural world and his submission to it is boldly illustrated with Hugo's powerful use of the camera. The straightforward, dead centered images confront the viewer with the physicality of the subject. The large prints and crisp details allow you to examine the subjects but the question of why still remains.