Pieter Hugo at Yossi Milo

Pieter Hugo's first solo photography exhibition in New York, "The Hyena and Other Men," focuses on two groups of considerably obscure individuals: Nigerian animal charmers and Ghanaian honey collectors. The result is a series of deeply arresting, often-troubling large-scale color portraits depicting uneasy relationships to the wild. In Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Ogre-Remo, Nigeria, 2007, a massive, rope-muzzled hyena pounces on his master, while the latter glares defiantly at the camera, his bicep flexed. In Dayaba Usman with the Monkey Clear, Nigeria, 2005, a young man and his monkey, dressed in similar polo shirts, sit on a narrow bench; the monkey is chained, but it rests its arm affectionately on the young man's leg, the show of tenderness bespeaking volumes about the creature's confused relationship to its own exploitation. But the exploiters here, themselves scarred and covered in dust, appear no less exploited, provoking questions about the lengths one must go to in order to eke out a living in northern Nigeria's bleak urban locales.

The artist's problematizing of the master-slave binary, however, goes well beyond merely raising hackles with regard to possibly inhumane animal treatment. His image of a wild-honey collector wearing a faded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and, over his head, a garbage bag with cutout holes (as protection from bees) suggests a dehumanization borne of necessity and wrought by geopolitical and economic forces all the more insidious for their apparent benignity. The artist's choice here, as with the animal series, to shoot full-frontal portraits and not images of his subjects engaged in their work-which would no doubt be frenzied and harrowing-is a smart one; not only does it foreground the dignity of these individuals but it also contains what might otherwise be an unchecked exoticism, especially in the case of the honey collectors collared in cassava leaves for protection.

Artforum.com, December 12, 2007