Published: 5 months ago
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Words Emma Jordan
Photography Pieter Hugo
“I intuitively knew they’d be successful,” says award-winning photographer Pieter Hugo about his series The Hyena & Other Men. The set, which the South African shot over two trips to Nigeria in 2005 and 2007, was first shown in South Africa and is still on tour around the world. The series recently won Hugo the Discovery Award 2008 at the Rencontres d’Arles festival and the KLM Paul Huf Award 2008, and the accompanying book is now on its third print run.
This career-defining body of work began when a friend in Nigeria sent Hugo a photo to his mobile phone of a group of men walking down the street with a hyena in chains. Intrigued, Hugo did some investigating and a few weeks later was on a plane to Lagos. He was determined to uncover, understand and depict the ‘Gadawan Kura’ or hyena handlers. “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,” explains Hugo. “It turned out that they were a band of itinerant minstrels who used the animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicine. The animal handlers were â€¨all related to each other and practising a tradition passed down from generation to generation. I spent eight days travelling with them.”
The resulting images depict a group of strong men, dressed in an assortment of t-shirts and leather skirts, with their animal kin. Dominant â€¨or affectionate, the anomalies of their relationship are compelling and intriguing. The viewer is forced to question who these people are, how they exist in what we perceive to be the modern world, and the fundamentals of their relationships. As the hyena, a powerful predator, is shrouded in mythology, so too are these modern-medieval performers.