In his apartment in Surulere, Lagos, Chudy Ogobegwu was lying on his living room couch when the anxiety hit him again. He had always had anxiety, something that came and left, but in the last month it had exacerbated. Before COVID-19, his professional life, as an events and concert photographer, was busy. But with the pandemic forcing a national lockdown and cancelled events, his income was affected and his anxiety increased.
It was the first week of April. “That particular moment, I closed my computer and said, ‘You know what? I know I am going through this, I know friends of mine are going through this, many creatives are going through this.’ All I had was my camera. I might as well use it to tell the story of what we are going through.”
The stories Ogobegwu has since curated are part of The Peace Exhibit, an online visual and literary project creating awareness for mental health. It features work by 30 photographers, in black-and-white, and 85 writers, and includes his own series White Paint, which has a bare-bodied man, hands and face painted white, trying to free his head of padlocked chains. “I had to think of what the theme meant to me personally,” he says. “It’s like I had to constantly apply a new coat every day, a new coat of peace of mind. That’s what a lot of people are fighting for, a peace of mind.”
“My experience in 2014 was my first real time being depressed,” Ogobegwu tells me. “I had started this business, put my all into it, and it just crumbled. After a while, I got the hang on it. Then years later, on a project I was working on in 2018—you know when you’re doing these high-powered jobs and clients are putting you down? I was having no sleep, those feelings came back to a point when I contemplated jumping off the building.”
Then one day, he spoke to a friend. “My sharing it with her was inspired by hearing her talk and then realizing the similarities between what she was going through and what I had gone through but had pushed into the background.” He spoke with a few more friends and realized that while his came in periods, for most of his friends, depression is their “daily experience.” “I realized that to keep myself sane, on the daily, I had to take out ten minutes and just breathe, and say, ‘You’re going to be fine,’ and just be mindful.” But while he understood it was depression, he never researched it until the idea for the project came.
“Chudy has always been stunned by issues that didn’t have enough audience,” Sonia Nzekwe, one of the two writing reviewers for The Peace Exhibit, tells me on the phone. “So when he told me about this, I had to do it. I think it’s time that stories like this are told.” As word spread, more artists sent in work. A community was coming together, bound by similar experiences.
Amanda Madumere’s contribution is a photo series featuring a blindfolded girl sitting in a bush. “I suffer depression, crippling depression,” she says. “It’s something I’ve lived with all my life. My first thought was how I can use images to represent the distortion of the mind. Mental health is complex, something a lot of people haven’t figured out how to navigate. How could I translate the mind into images?”
The photography contributors bring a range of concepts. There are depictions of struggle: Osagioduwa Agbonifo has a girl screaming on the floor, Kanna Anigbogu has triggering hand-written notes (“After everything your parents have done for you, see you”). There are images of refuge: Kassim Taiwo has a man with braided hair under an umbrella in his bedroom, Delovie has a naked woman stuffed in a wardrobe shelf, Everest Akunwa has a woman folded on the chair, her body veiled. And there are moments of reprieve: Michael Deep has a smiling boy carrying his brother in a bush, Olutobi Harry has a man smiling with the Bible. Each series is paired with poetry or prose.
“The goal for me was to spark up a conversation,” Ogobegwu says. “Before now, I wasn’t involved in the conversation around mental health. The same way this period has been awakening for me, I wanted it to be awakening for other people as well.”
The contributors are now meeting to support each other. “A Zoom call last Sunday,” he says, “just checking in on each other and learning what we are doing to keep our minds at peace.”
The Zoom call was “very informal, just to encourage each other,” Madumere says. “I know how depression can affect creativity. It just numbs you, keeps you down. You’re just waiting for when you’ll feel better or when your mind is done tricking you so you can create. You see people talking now and you relate. It brings this interconnectedness. It’s like the James Baldwin quote: ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’”
“I wanted the exhibition to let people struggling know that they are not alone,” Ogobegwu says. “I also hope it will get people who don’t think depression is a problem to listen. They feel, Africans are strong, we can cope, if I’m able to go through hard times then anyone can. We are getting feedback; some are saying, ‘I didn’t know this was serious oh, I thought it’s an oyibo problem.’”
While Ogobegwu will resume his normal work after the lockdown, he describes The Peace Exhibit as “a wonderful new calling.” “We have contributions from Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Africa, and Namibia,” he says. “I hope, as soon as borders open up, that we’re able to raise support for this project and take it on tour in these countries. I also hope the artists will have a chance to make some money from their work.”
Thepeaceexhibit.com has a Get Help section, linked to Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), which offers free counseling, and a Survey section, containing a Mood Assessment for African Creatives, which has so far collected data from over 390 respondents. “Over 50% of the people are suffering between mild and severe depression, and a large number of them are leaning towards suicidal tendencies,” Ogobegwu says. “If you look at the last question, ‘How many times in the last two weeks have you felt you were better off dead?,’ the number of people that have said almost every day frightens me. We could use that to help creatives.”
“The feeling of being alone was stripped off, getting to hear other people’s experiences,” Nzekwe says. “The Exhibit needed to happen.” She is particularly concerned about the mental effects of the lockdown. “None of us have lived through a pandemic before. Last year, I lost my dad. I was concerned about people who lost loved ones and now are forced to stay indoors, with pictures of them that reinstate the fact that they are no longer there. I’m wondering how young people who have had to take care of family are coping, now that they have to take pay cuts and dealing with the Black Tax. I know it’s okay to feel what I’m feeling, because this will also pass.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.