The filmmaker and visual artist Karimah Ashadu’s works examine the socio-economic conditions in which West Africans, and Nigerians in particular, live and work. Her films depict farmers working in palm oil production, laborers at a sawmill on the Lagos State Lagoon, the operation of a sawblade sharpener, or portraits of boxers. Without moralizing, Ashadu spotlights the beauty that lies dormant in the everyday and brings her subjects’ self-reliance and efforts to rise from the legacy of colonialism into focus; her unusual cinematography, meanwhile, deftly undermines the separation between documentation and art. In her early experimental shorts, implements she constructed using the simplest of means often let her frame unwonted perspectives and challenge the viewer to look closely. King of Boys (Abattoir of Makoko) (2015), for instance, captures the bustle at a slaughterhouse. A found plastic canister serves as an analog filter, tinging the camera image or parts of it with a bold red hue that results in a peculiar ambivalence between the violent business of killing and butchering animals and the dreamlike and oddly alluring atmosphere of a setting bathed in red light.
Ashadu’s most recent film, Brown Goods (2020)—the first one she shot in Europe—engages a more decidedly documentary approach. It tells the story of Emeka, a Nigerian migrant in Hamburg who makes a living by trading used cars and electrical goods between Germany and Nigeria. His merchandise reenacts his journey as a refugee in reverse, and his dream of a better life in Europe hinges, paradoxically enough, on the flow of money from Africa. While working on the film, the artist also created a series of sculptures out of parts of scrap cars and other found materials. The manifest discrepancy between the way that technological detritus takes on new value when exported to Nigeria and its sudden value enhancement in the art context adds another layer of significance to the sculptures.