Celebrating the proud culture behind Nigerian hairstyles

A contemporary photographer pays homage to the late J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, famous for his images of Nigerian women’s hair.

With her project Chroma, photographer and artist Medina Sage Dugger pays homage to J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014), a photographer famous for his black-and-white images of Nigerian women’s intricate hairdos. Wunika Mukan consulted on the project.

In the work of J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014), we see hair as storytelling. Over nearly half a century, the renowned photographer documented thousands of intricate, gravity-defying hairstyles that were the fashion in his native Nigeria after it won independence from the British Empire in 1960.

Before then, hairstyles were social markers symbolizing marital status, ethnic origins, socioeconomic class. With Nigerian independence, they took on political meaning too. 

Ojeikere’s work seems to have had a threefold purpose. He captured the resurgence of indigenous hairstyles that had fallen from favor under colonial powers. He documented hairstyle innovations as citizens reestablished their identity. And after a time, his approach became more archival, to preserve the memory of the styles in the face of globalization. 

Photographer Medina Sage Dugger launched her project in 2017, roughly 50 years after Ojeikere began his. California-born Dugger relocated to Lagos in 2011. She spent four years as a co-curator and project coordinator for the African Artists’ Foundation and Lagos Photo Festival, before devoting herself full-time to photography. Her Chroma project, which is ongoing, won the Open series category of the 2017 Magnum Photography Awards.

Dugger’s Chroma is an ode to Ojeikere and an attempt to build on his legacy. It borrows heavily from Ojeikere’s vision but not his palette: His portraits are black-and-white, hers pop with color. In an interview with the Lagos arts publication Omenka, Dugger, who is white, credited Nigerian arts curator Wunika Mukan for suggesting “that revisiting Ojeikere’s work in color could be interesting. I instantly envisioned making use of the unconventional hair threads and weaves now available in local markets.” Dugger partnered with Nigerians—including the project’s hairstylists and models—in the decision-making and creative processes. 

Dugger modeled this vivid portrait of a heart-shaped hairstyle after a similar black-and-white image by Ojeikere.
Dugger modeled this vivid portrait of a heart-shaped hairstyle after a similar black-and-white image by Ojeikere.

Today in Nigerian cities, globalization has fully taken root. Hairstyles are more decorative and less imbued with sociopolitical meaning—but still may make statements. As attitudes shift frequently between liberal and conservative (and more of the latter), the bold, whimsical hair that Dugger shows—even if it’s only an individual fashion choice—can be seen as defiance of norms. “It is nice we can come together and unite,” she says, and that “we can celebrate differences and pasts.”

A project like Chroma has particular relevance today, Dugger told Omenka. “In our increasingly connected world, cultural styles and expressions risk appropriation, dilution, and abandonment. This underscores the importance of Ojeikere’s work and of preserving these practices and history.”

When Ojeikere began, his photographs were groundbreaking. Today we’d describe his work as traditional and Dugger’s as modern. Yet with her new-hairstyle project, Dugger is continuing the tradition by documenting the culture as Ojeikere did. The storytelling goes on.

Based in Lagos, Nigeria, and Accra, Ghana, Ayodeji Rotinwa covers cultural and artistic life and social justice issues.

This story appears in the July 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was updated on Jun 11, 2021.

Read This Next

An icy world is in meltdown, amid penguin population shifts
This sacred valley could become the next national monument
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet