In 2009 a group of Nigerian artists, most of them photographers, decided to set off on a road trip to Mali—with unexpected consequences. Sean O’Toole spoke to the project’s artistic director, Omeka Okereke
Lagos is closer to Bamako than Barcelona is to Berlin. Extrapolating from this fact, if a journey between Johannesburg and Cape Town takes an uneventful 15 hours by car—roughly the motoring time that separates the Spanish and German cities—planning a three-day drive from the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria to the plains of the Sahel in Mali might seem overly generous. Admittedly, the journey does include five border crossings, but technically these borders are all in the Economic Community of West African States.
Technically, numerically, logically—the adverb is a dangerous thing to hold onto when travelling in Africa.
It took a group of ten Nigerian friends, amongst them writer Nike Ojeikere, and photographers Uche Okpa-Iroha and Emeka Okereke, nearly a week to drive from Lagos to Bamako’s Musee National, host venue for the 2009 Bamako Encounters African Photography Biennial. But why drive when the group could easily have flown? Emeka Okereke, artistic director of the Invisible Borders trans-African photography initiative, which since 2009 has undertaken two more exploratory city-to-city drives—in 2010 they journeyed west to Dakar, last year they drove east to Addis Ababa— explains why.
Sean O’Toole: When you set off for the 2009 Bamako Encounters African Photography Biennial in a black VW van, did you have any idea that the journey—and your tales of it on your blog—would resonate, to the extent that you have now undertaken two more journeys and exhibited your ‘findings’ widely, across Africa, in Europe, and most recently in the United States?
Emeka Okereke: Well, the truth was that we didn’t know this: we were moving with the inspiration of that moment. It was only when we got to Bamako after we had surmounted all the challenges of the road that it dawned on us that this was a ground-breaking project. Coupled with the fact that the theme for the Bamako encounters that year was coincidentally “borders”, it gave our project a presence at the Bamako encounters. It was there that I decided that we should make it an annual event. Everyone welcomed the idea and we began to push ahead with our plans. What is interesting is the experimental nature of the project. The more we travel, the more we see possibilities, the more inspiring it gets, and, of course, the more daunting.
SO: The Invisible Borders collective is Nigerian. Travelling across West Africa, later to East Africa, how did your national identity feature as factor in your travels? Were you treated with any particular suspicion or curiosity, especially at border crossings?
…no one is ever indifferent to Nigerians – we are either good news or the worst news
EO: First let me begin by correcting you. It began with what seemed like a Nigerian collective, but the main idea is to make it a platform for artists from different parts of the African continent. In 2011 we had two non-Nigerians in the project: Nana Oforiatta Ayim from Ghana, and Ala Kheir from Sudan. We hope to expand the participation of non-Nigerians with this year’s edition. But given the fact that Nigerians were predominant in number in all the road trips, I would say that the reaction has been mixed and differed in relation to how the people we encountered perceive Nigeria. In the Republic of Benin and Ghana, for instance, it was a bit hostile, which I would say has to do with the complexities of them neighbouring on Nigeria. In Sudan and Ethiopia the experience was much better. But in all, I would say that no one is ever indifferent to Nigerians—we are either good news or the worst news. On our 2011 trip to Addis Ababa we noticed that people across the countries we visited tend to identify with that resilient energy that defines every Nigerian. This for me was a source of hope that, if we keep pushing, this energy will spread and people will be ‘contaminated’ by it.
SO: Border posts require of the traveller that they succinctly state their purpose, often in writing. How did you describe your purpose for journeying?
EO: Well, on our first trip we took off like a bunch of novices and thought we would be allowed to cross borders without a thorough explanation. We were, of course, very wrong. We had to immediately make up a letter, describing ourselves as artists on a project to investigate the limitations and inhibitions posed by national and non-national borders. By the time of our late trip, in 2011, this letter had evolved: we had English, French and Arabic versions, so that we could pass through Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia. We also now have the official stamp of our organization on these letters. We usually carry a press pass as we have the right to issue such ID cards. So we found ourselves saying that we are a mixture of artists and journalists. And truly, that’s the nature of Invisible Borders: it is where art meets journalism, or vice versa.
SO: After three journeys your sense of mission, especially as documentary photographers, must have matured. Can you briefly elaborate on what you have learnt, about the purpose of photography, and looking at cities photographically?
EO: It’s been quite a journey, both inwardly and outwardly. As we travel, what becomes most apparent is that Africa needs to be documented. In the wake of the recent social upheavals, and all the publicity they attracted, lots of meaningful stories of everyday living have been lost. We realised that our work could be a way to emphasise an Africa that is always pushed aside by the mainstream media, an Africa that is full of energy. We are looking to channel that in a purposeful direction. We want to show that what is happening in Africa today is paving the way for a better future.
In our forthcoming book, I write: “In all the countries visited, there is a common denominator: the zeal and passion of this generation to join minds together in working for the benefit of all in the continent. We sense this in the form of a defiant energy— that which refuses to be bridled by existing norms. It is true that with the state of things in Africa one can only speak of this energy as existing in only a few Africans when compared to the entire population. But despite that, it testifies of a window towards a new era.” In term of photography, as a physical document, every click of the camera is history in the making. Even those photos we throw in the trash today after editing will turn out to be our history tomorrow. There can never be enough clicks as far as the continent is concerned.
Every click of the camera is history in the making. Even those photos we throw in the trash today after editing will turn out to be our history tomorrow
SO: On your travels, which cities were the most memorable?
EO: Khartoum. The city symbolised the reason why we embarked on this project, which aims to deconstruct dogmas and stereotypes. Again from the forthcoming book: “Arriving in Khartoum, or precisely just when the city came into view, none of us was in any way ready for what we were looking at from above. That was the first practical realisation of how messed-up we were in our heads with all the presumptions aided by the media. Just that aerial experience, which at this point could even be termed peripheral, was a staunch indication that we know nothing of Sudan, despite our detailed research.”
And a little bit more: “Making pictures in Khartoum was a blessed experience. The people were constantly receptive of our presence, and moreover curious as to the purpose of our visit. We had authorisation to make photos from the office of the ministry of tourism, but we never had to use it, except when a policeman thought we photographed him. Besides making photos, we had the opportunity—and luxury when compared to Lagos, Abuja, Jos or N’djamena—to have a lengthy conversation with our subjects and share the photos with them through the display screen of our Canon digital cameras. Some of us—the ladies—even got gifts from those they photographed and shared with. I personally speak of this second dimension to our photographic experience—this gift of sharing and conversing with our subject after the picture was made—as the most priceless of all experiences of this journey.” We would go on to experience more of this as we travelled from Sudan to Ethiopia.