It was midway through the 20th century when the first oil fields were opened up in Nigeria. Today the country is one of the most important suppliers of oil for the United States and the sixth largest oil producer in the world. The oil industry has generated enormous revenue for the government, but at the same time has had a disruptive effect on the countryside. The unique biodiversity of the Niger Delta has been destroyed by oil spills and continual gas fires. Fishing and cultivating the once fertile soil have become futile activities as a result of oil production there.
While a thin upper crust benefits from the oil revenues, the vast majority of the population still live in shocking poverty. It is rare for the big oil companies to put money into activities that compensate the local population for the loss of previous sources of income. The social and economic inequalities lead to tensions and conflicts among the different communities in Nigeria.
Social protest, channeled along peaceful lines by Ken Saro-Wiwa until his execution in 1995, has since taken on violent forms under MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). Members of MEND sabotage oil installations and take foreign workers hostage in an effort to drive out the oil companies. According to them, this is the only way to force the corrupt Nigeria government to change its policies and bring about a change in the future prospects for their county.
'The Nigerian state is not even corruption. It is organized crime.'
Research Ed Kashi
Ed Kashi needed several visits to the Niger Delta to be able to show the full scope of the problems. On his final visit in 2006 he experienced a breakthrough. In part thanks to financial support from National Geographic Kashi was able to perform an in-depth investigation and received access to the oil firms in the region. At the same time Kashi came into contact with one of the key figures of MEND, Jomo Gbomo, which enabled him to begin working on subjects that had previously been off-limits for him.
It was an exciting, almost surrealistic period for Kashi, in which he knew about planned attacks on oil installations far before the media did. As Kashi described it himself, 'Ultimately the intimacy and confidence I observed was perhaps nothing more than the umpteenth shadow in an unfathomable region, that an outsider will never be able to understand entirely.'
The mediation and protection of Jomo Gbomo yielded important photos for him. To the shots of oil production, of everyday life in the delta, characterised by poverty and pollution, of local leaders and nameless villagers, he could add shots that he made in more remote areas, where MEND members prepared for their actions and buried their dead.
Curse of the Black Gold has appeared in book form, edited by Michael Watts, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and human rights activist. The book has already become the standard work on the connections between oil, the environment and society in the Niger Delta. Noorderlicht has assembled the exhibition with the same title for its own gallery.
Artist talk by Ed Kashi
Ed Kashi talked about his latest work as well as his long-term research in Nigeria at the Noorderlicht Photogallery