Ten individuals bonded by their love of photography set out to observe Africa’s similarities and differences. By Pelu Awofeso
It takes loads of courage to venture into unfamiliar territory, particularly when the place in question is full of people who speak a language you can’t understand, observe a spiritual ritual alien to you and exhibit behavioural patterns that vary either minutely or massively from yours. The reality on the ground, when you step into the place, is that you are a stranger to the locals and the locals see you no differently.
Courage (and a certain sense of purpose) is what put ten Nigerian photographers on the road for the second time within a year, leaving their home country on a three-week journey of exploration, which would end at the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where they were to be part of the 9th Biennale of the Contemporary African Art of Dakar (Dak’Art 2010), which winds up on June 7.
While the journey lasted (April 27-May 16) the photographers focused on shooting whatever sights the landscape en route threw at them. They spent time to work with various indigenous artists and made a couple new friends. And as a tension leveller, they went shopping in the different towns and cities.
“The experience you get from this type of trip cannot be overemphasised,” enthused Ray Daniels Okeugo, who has been on both journeys. “There is a lot to see and you find it really difficult to focus on just one or two themes as the journey progresses.”
The ‘Invisible Borders’ Project
The West African journey falls under the ‘Invincible Borders’ photographic project, through which the group plans to explore the continent and tell the African story as born Africans, not as outsiders viewing the motherland with pre-conceived notions . It is an exploration of the concept of borders in its several manifestations (be they geographical, physical, economic, cultural artistic, social, internal etc).
The ‘Invisible Borders’ project queries whether these concepts are ‘on the ground’ and working, truly promoting free movement of people, trade and commerce, culture, friendships, brother-sister-familyhood or whether there are other borders not so visible to the naked eye, that hinder the laudable ideals of governments across the region. It is a performance where the participants use themselves as guinea pigs to test the concept and realities of borders with geographical reference to West Africa, and the limits of West Africanism, Pan-Africanism, African Unionism, African Brother/Sisterhood, and other such concepts much beloved and promoted by governments of African nations, which continue to commit huge resources to promote these ideals.
The ‘Invisible Borders’ project is also an artistic journey for participants, who are afforded the opportunity to explore, question and push the frontiers of creativity (expressed through photography and writing) through a closer engagement with new environments and through networking with other artists on the trail.
On a slightly less demanding level, the project, according to Uche Okereke, a prize-winning photographer, is to create opportunities for upcoming photographers and artists to visit other parts of the continent and relevant festivals to interact with like-minded people, and to create cultural and artistic networks that will help reduce the barriers and obstacles (language, for example) that appear to be slowing down Africa. That, in a nutshell, is what drives the team.
“How come it is easier to change an African currency to the Dollar, Euro or Pounds but very difficult to change one African currency to another?” Amaize Ojiekere wonders, for instance. His question does not end there. He doesn’t see the need, either, for an ECOWAS or an African Union, when Africans can’t travel or trade seamlessly among themselves.
And so to test some aspects of the ECOWAS treaty on integration of its 16 member-states, especially as it relates to free movement of persons, goods and services, the ten photographers travelled overland to Bamako (Mali); beyond their collective agenda they were to participate in the Bi-annual photography showcase. On their initial trip, crossing the borders from one country to the next proved so tedious and frustrating; not willing to turn back unceremoniously, the travellers parted with extra money to secure their passage. “We were highly exploited,” recalls Chriss Aghana Nwobu, “but this time around we resolved not to pay a kobo extra if a receipt would not be issued.”
Incidentally, the second outing proved a lot more rewarding. “In Accra, we visited the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA),” says Charles Okereke, one of the older members of the team, and whose interest on the journey was the iconography of architecture across the borders and the observable differences in physical appearances of the people they come in contact with.
Charles is not so comfortable with the fact that over the years African creative minds have tended to produce works primarily for sale and not to engage serious issues affecting the continent. At the CCA, the group were fascinated by the issues-based creations of the Ghanaian creators. And according to Charles, “there’s a certain sense of appreciation among the people we’ve met.”
The Invincible Borders team are as varied in personality as they are in their choice of subjects. “It’s difficult looking at yourself and living with nine other people,” Chriss Aghana Nwobu admitted, “and to try to impose your own views or preferences on others is tough. It yielded a lot of lessons for me.”
Beyond that, however, the group got along pretty well, enduring the ups and downs a trip like that invariably throws up.
The 2010 Trans-African Photographic Expedition included: Amaize Ojeikere, Ray Daniels Okeugo, Uche James-Iroha, Lucy Azubuike, Charles Okereke, Uche Okpa-Iroha, Chidimma Nnorom, Emeka Okereke and Chriss Aghana Nwobu, Unoma Giese (up to Bobo Dioulasso) and Nike Adesuyi-Ojeikere, who blogged the journey. They travelled by road from Lagos to Cotonou, Lome, Accra, Kumasi, BoboDioulasso, Bamako, Kayes and anchored in Dakar, Senegal