The prudent response when encountering a pit bull straining at its leash is to cede the right of way. So imagine walking down the street and seeing somebody with a hyena at the end of a heavy chain. When South Africa–based photographer Pieter Hugo heard about a group of men in Nigeria who roam the country with a small menagerie of hyenas, baboons, and rock pythons, he felt impelled to find out more.
His first New York City solo show features eight large-format photographs of the troupe’s members, their animals, and a six-year-old girl named Mummy who travels with them. Although they’re treated as pets and companions, the animals are also used to draw crowds of curious onlookers to whom the “hyena men” sell amulets, fetish items, and traditional medicines. These transactions aren’t documented in the photographs, which are straightforward yet deeply provocative portraits of the men and their animals. In Dayaba Usman with the monkey Clear, Nigeria (2005), a seated baboon, dressed in a child’s matching shirt and pants, delicately drapes its arm across Usman’s thigh. Mallam Galadima Ahamadu With Jamis, Nigeria (2005) shows a man and his hyena in the middle of a dusty street. Though the hyena is muzzled and chained, for a moment the two figures equally command the camera’s respect even as it captures a troubling set of potential exploitations, whether of the animals by their captors or the subjects by the photographer.
Accompanying the selection from Hugo’s “The Hyena Men” are three from his series “Wild Honey Collectors.” Reminiscent of Zwelethu Mthethwa’s powerful portraits of sugarcane workers, Hugo’s photographs of honey gatherers in the forests of Ghana feature their improvised bee protection: cassava leaves ringing the neck and face, a torn purple raincoat, a plastic bag with holes for the eyes and mouth. Neither they nor the hyena men are shown at work, perhaps indicating another form of labor—one that goes into maintaining basic human dignity in the face of harsh material circumstances.