Pieter Hugo, a prominent South African photographer, famously explores group identities, race, colour and classification. He focusses primarily upon African communities, often with a documentary slant. His most well-known expression of these interests is his series ‘The Hyena and Other Men’. For this project he travelled with a group of performing street artists, and their animals, around the outskirts of Nigerian capital Abuja. Hugo captured the co-dependence between animal and man, as well the tensions between the wild and the domestic.
When Hugo looked back through his notebooks from the journey, the word ‘co-dependence’ kept appearing. One of the handlers summarized their reliance upon the hyenas, telling Hugo: ‘This animal has helped us. The money we make gives us food every day.’ Yet are the hyenas equally dependent upon the men? Hyenas are still Africa’s most common carnivore, described as ‘least threatened’ by the AWF. In ‘Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara’, the man’s stance and eye contact with the viewer seems to imply confidence and strength when posing alongside his animal, as if he were drawing strength from it. The hyena, on the other hand, looks disinterested and bored with his human companion.
Nevertheless, the natural habitat of hyenas- savannah, grasslands, woodlands- are being encroached upon by rapid urbanization, with Abuja cited as the fastest-growing city in Africa. Without human care, the hyenas could struggle to cope with the pressures of industrialization upon their territory. Perhaps handler and hyena really are both leaning on each other, as seen in ‘Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Ogre-remo’. This image portrays the tensions between wild and urban landscapes, as desert sands in the foreground give way to oil tankers in the background.
One of Hugo’s most shocking images is ‘Mummy Ahmadu and Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara’, in which a toddler cuddles up to a hyena. Her father explains: ‘She has taken a potion of traditional herbs and has been bathed with it. So her safety from the animals is guaranteed for the rest of her life.’ The handlers also protect themselves with herbs, concoctions, and powders, some of which are then sold to spectators after the performance. This blurs the boundaries between wild and domestic, implying that the creatures pose no risk to certain people, yet are a significant danger to others.
Hugo’s own identity has guided his documentary style: “I feel African, whatever that means, but if you ask anyone in South Africa if I'm African, they will almost certainly say no. I don't fit into the social topography of my country and that certainly fuelled why I became a photographer." If his series is a performance, Hugo has cast himself into the wings as an observing outsider.
The enduring intrigue of this series is demonstrated by the number of times it has been exhibited. It first appeared in 2007, at the Yossi Milo, NYC. Subsequent exhibitions include: FOAM_Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam; Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel; Photographic Centre Peri, Finland; Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow. ‘The Hyena and Other Men’ has also been published as a coffee-table book. On top of this, Hugo has been exhibited at some of contemporary art’s most illustrious institutions: Tate Modern; MOMA; V&A Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. This cements his immense significance to contemporary photography on a global scale, as he deals with communities and group identities which are all too often overlooked.