Introduction – As a precursor to our forthcoming Art Issue, we ask two leading Nigerian artists, Emeka Okereke and Qudus Onikeku, to share reflections on their recent projects. In this essay, what begins as a recount of a workshop and exhibition in N’djamena, Chad, expands into a deep reflection on history, public space, and social intervention highlighted by the use of Photography. Emeka Okereke is the founder of Invisible Borders, a trans-African organization that is resolute on creating a trans-African highway of the mind. In recent months, the Organization has received glowing media attention for its ambitious road trip projects across African borders and countries. The organization also organizes exhibitions and workshops in African cities, most recently in N’djamena and Accra, with the support of her partners  

We returned from N’djamena after a very intense but super-exciting 12 days. The public engaged with the images displayed in a profound and unpretentious manner. They equally identified very much with the concept of Invisible Borders. What was intriguing (I believe, to them) was the fact that the exhibition featured mostly images from N’Djamena, but also Khartoum, Addis Ababa and a bit of Lagos and Abuja. From the feedback we picked up, the audience was able to situate themselves within the reality portrayed by the images. They identified familiar places, but were also able to project their imagination beyond as a result of the “openness” of the images and their tendency to depict occurrences in the public spaces of African cities. The N’Djamena audience was able to identify with the familiarity of places; people and structures proffered by the images, while at the same time relished the unorthodox gaze suggested by the works.

This exhibition in N’djamena afforded us the opportunity to learn a thing or two about interacting with the public within a specific context. It revealed to us the importance of “returning” to places, the city and people where the actual works were created during the past road trips. The people get to interact and connect with the work on a much more intimate and tactile level. Our preoccupation since the last four years is to understand and arrive at a method of using art as a tangible means of social intervention.

In Tchad we had a glimpse of that possibility: The Invisible Borders Road trip will be losing a limb if at the end of it all, we do not get to show those work in the context they were made. In as much as it is very important to reach the rest of the world through exhibitions in far-flung places and online interactions, the indispensability of a return to places travelled cannot be over-emphasized. This is the so-called building of Networks. It is even more so when the exhibition comes two years or more after the road trip. This interval in time leaves room for memory to play its role. The immediacy of the road trip finds its completeness in the return that should incorporate exhibitions, workshops, and other activities aimed at engaging the public using the works created in the past as a tangible reference. With such a pattern, it won’t be too long before the results of such strategic knitting of exchanges becomes significant and a force to reckon with throughout the continent.

During these 12 days, we had a workshop with the budding Tchadian photography collective known as “Photo Cam Tchad.” These photographers are in the process of coming into “being” but they had already set out on a good foot under the supervision of Abdoulaye Barry, a more established Tchadian photographer who has already instilled in them the ethics of specificity and categorizations into themes and body of work. This quality gave their endeavours a structure that enabled the audience to understand their intentions where the quality of the images failed to do so.

The parent theme for the workshop was Urban Mutation, an attempt by photographers to document the transformation and resulting evolution of the city of N’djamena – a phenomenon that is in perpetual replication across major cities in Africa. The artists see a duty in documenting this volatile process of change taking place in the city, a rapid progress to what would be the N’djamena of tomorrow.

Before the arrival of Invisible Borders, the collective had already began working on this parent theme, taking N’Djamena one district after the other. Each person has his or her own theme and subject they worked on. During the workshop, which lasted for about 8 days, we deliberated on the implications and significance of imagery in the African context: Photographers are writers of history and memory. On the other hand, with the advent of digital photography, we see a tremendous increase in the number of commercial photographers, and a rapid decline in photographers using photography as an art form and social engagement.

“The artists see a duty in documenting this volatile process of change taking place in the city, a rapid progress to what would be the N’djamena of tomorrow.”

This of course can be attributed to the desperate need for survival and the uncertainties of making a living out of being an artist/activist. But, when this acute sense of survival is removed from the equation, what is left is the heavy truth that, history is likely to repeat itself again – a history of “Africa with no history” – if agents of imagery (and this extends beyond photography – I will add writing, film making, performance etc.), do not recognize and indeed put to use this power to preserve our histories through a tactile engagement and a subsequent reflections about the happenings of today.

I am of the opinion that, for Africa to see any real progress, the people must be sensitized and educated. The real invention then lies on what form and content constitute this sensitization and education – sensitisation and education towards what? The answer I believe is “towards self-reflection”. Towards asking questions, profound questions about what constitute the occurrences within one’s immediate environment. This self-reflection will induce a sense of worth in one’s self, which will invariably materialize on the immediate environment as well as on the neighbour.

The spaces and occurrences (the coincidence of spatial arrangement) depicted by photographers are only a materialization of the inward state-of-being of those therein. I am of the opinion that every object, every line, every crack on the wall, and every footstep is a photographical depiction of who we are. In this sense, it is no coincidence, but the choreography of a collective be-ing. In the same light, the photo object becomes not just a frame on the wall, but a landmark for journeys through our existence and those of others – more so when the photographs are viewed in retrospect, when it has accumulated debris of time’s content.

“I am of the opinion that every object, every line, every crack on the wall, and every footstep is a photographical depiction of who we are.”

As we use the space, and allow ourselves be nourished (or repulsed) by its ambience, we take part in a collective performance of designing that space. Everyone and everything related to that space take part in this perpetual art of spatial design, and hence the one with camera, a pen, or just his/her body.

Therefore social intervention through photography and other equally strong forms of artistic expression is not as abstract as it may sound, especially when weighed with the same scale as valuable contributions towards the progress of the society and the improvement of the standard of life of all peoples. All life is first conjured in the workspace of the mind (at least as far as humans are concerned), and every endeavour that aims at affecting mind-space, is not only essential, but inevitable in the rehabilitation of our already misguided sense of purposefulness and harmony.

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More on Invisible Borders: Website | Facebook | Twitter| Aljazeera Documentary | Profile on CNN International

The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the opinion of Saraba Magazine.

Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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