Essays, Featured, Trans-African
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Discussing Aesthetics in The Trans-African Project

Leaving the Container, Indecisive Moment, Accra, 2013

Reality can be synthesized

I am sitting in a moderately furnished apartment, in the living room precisely. There is a flower vase right before me, on top of my desk – with flowers, yes. Only that these flowers are synthetic and not the real thing. It got me reflecting:

The extent to which reality could easily be synthesized in a bid to approach or reproach its inherent substance…

For more than 20 days, I have been on the road, together with eight other participants; we are artists – photographers, writers, filmmakers and even one who simply calls himself a visual artist.  The project is called Invisible Borders, and as the name seems to imply, it is all about rendering the Visible Borders invisible, flattening it, blurring it, but in actuality, the experiences gathered after three years and three editions of the trip, suggests that the name of the project could be seen at most as encompassing different layers and aspects, or at worst, a very vague term.

Here we are travelling through borders by road from one African country to the other, starting from Lagos. We are stuck in our van, with our van, a box in every sense of the word. A box that seems pleasant to be in for the first-timers of the trip especially during the first few days but becomes something to escape from towards the middle and end of the trip, a van which dangles between extreme poles of being an asset and yet a massive liability.

I am forced to evaluate our position in all of this especially, when seen in the context that social-political membranes could be pierced through artistic interventions. In order words, art can become a tangible social intervention. That brings me back to the flower vase standing before me now. And even though this vase is made of real glass, it carries a synthetic flower, a replica that by the intention of whoever placed it here should offer the same beauty, pleasure or whatever as the real flower. Well, perhaps it could, or at most suggest it. It of course can never be mistaken for the real thing, but its performative value can never be neglected either. It is an intervention in reality that could spark an argument, or sensitize one to a certain consciousness. This flower might not offer me the beauty of a real flower, but it might propel me to want to want to know the real flower, in this case, it (the flower) is not as synthetic as it comes off, especially by the virtue its metaphorical values.

I like to see things this way, the non-materiality of reality. The real is not in the substance but in the energy, which assembles the substances into existence. To that effect, our travel across border is beyond the physical act, no matter how sensational an adventure can sound or be. What strikes as most impressionable is the performative value of this journey. We are a fiction, in other people’s reality. No matter what we do, we will always be a pretense of that reality when seen from the point of view of those whose everyday existence we interfere or intersect with. But have we not by this intersection created a version of reality both for ourselves and for the others, a sort of a third dimension but something much more remarkable to both parties respectively?

Public Space, more of an intricate network

I am of the strong opinion that art practices and process should aim to reach out to the ‘everyday person’ and most importantly in the public space. But as we travel, I am compelled to reflect on what public space means. It is not so much the physical space as it is the social space of the people who occupy that physical space. Indeed if we should refer to the immateriality of reality, then it suffices to say that the physical space in itself is a derivative of the intricate networks of events, perception, personalities embodied by the people within the space – this is the real Public Space and every work that intends to exist or work with the public space must put into consideration or dialogue the everyday reality by which the physical space is a function. The physical space is a function of the social space and the social space is in turn a product of the immaterial radiations of those who occupy it.

Therefore, as we progress on this discourse surrounding borders, it becomes imperative not to undermine the performative nature of this intervention as a philosophical foothold and to inculcate it into the aesthetics of representation. Our objective therefore would be to constantly look for ways to present this project as an intervention within the everyday reality of the regular inhabitants of any given geography taking into account the element of spontaneity and improvisation, which are the core ingredients of uncurated interactions.

We are masters of Improvisation

If today I were asked what exactly is contemporary Africa, I would first of all begin to talk of radiations, a kind of energy which flows through the continent like a continuous line. This energy, this radiation is indeed what a whole lot of people tend to coin words to define. It has been there from the onset, and no matter how time changes, it surfaces in myriad forms, it is ever constant and re-inventive in nature, it permeates everything and everyone whose feet are rooted in the soil of the continent and thus has long since become our nature – subconsciously. This radiation gives rise to the shared reality of the people of this continent, but at the same time is nourished and fine-tuned by the struggle to circumvent unfavorable situations. It is what gives rise to the ‘arbitrary’ indefinable nature of existence in the continent. This energy is the unequivocal tendency towards spontaneity, the sheer extent of improvisation – that which flaws any form of predefined statistics. It is said that it is in Africa that the weatherman is always wrong. Why? Because naturally people live shoulder to shoulder with the moment and between two moments there are one billion ways of being.

Living in this reality is like being in a space where everything is non-linear, shapeless, yet this is the shape because it works. It reevaluates the defined and invigorates the stagnated. It momentalises every interaction in such a way that it seems far-fetched to base one’s reason of action on the awareness of the past or the assumptions of the future. This however does not mean that people do not make plans but this planning is never incapacitated by predefined notions, every moment is a stand-alone regardless of the fact that one leads to the other.

If there is anything like contemporary African art, it is those creations that are cognizant of this element of spontaneity and improvisation, which tends to work with, and draw from it the possibility of alternative forms and aesthetics. Therefore “being African” is to blur the lines between possible and impossible rendering the very state of “being” indefinable.

This radiation, this energy permeates everything but manifests prominently through the everyday space of the African people – the public space, where all the drama of living and co-existing is symbolized. Consequently, our work over the years followed this trajectory and hinged on depicting the exchange, the interaction of people and things within the public space; looking at what might be dismissed as banal, but by the act of “putting a frame to them”, we extract them from the ordinary. Moreover, we are consistently conscious of the fact that no click is a waste as far as posterity is in consideration.

Therefore our approach to imagery goes beyond making “beautiful photographs” or the need to show astuteness in photographic skills or even capturing the “decisive moments”. For us, the real story – often left out in the quest for blatant headlines – is embedded in the indecisive moments. We are much more interested in how the approach to imagery mirrors the reality that we are immersed in, rather than how images define this reality.

We are in transition towards another era as by virtue of our present circumstance we perfect the act of improvisation becoming a master of it by the minute. In this energy, which is becoming ever assertive, we find the vestiges of stagnation and the wake of creative vigorousness. The African public space has come to symbolize that spirit of dynamism that is as a result of the playing-out of everyone’s creative attempt at survival. It has become the heritage of today’s struggle to transcend the limitations for which her people have always been defined. It has come to become our studio, our space of work and our core philosophy.

La Nouvelle Expression” is an image I created reacting to the spontaneity of the moment. The Chinese passing through the frame was never planned nor does the umbrella really belong to Landry but a passer by who then had to stand in the rain and wait for us while we concluded the image. We obstructed his reality albeit for some minutes, but this very act implies the crossbreed of reality discussed in this article.

Aesthetics, Presentation and Interpretation

In the past years, what has become challenging is not just the struggle to permeate the implications of borders, but also (1) in what ways to use the different media at our disposal to effectively question and invigorate discussions about limitations in Trans-African exchange (2) how to present and interpret the project in such away as to convey the true experiences of the journey as a performative endeavor for which the process of the journey is in essence the outcome.

It is rightly said that it all began as a photographic project, but over the past years it has evolved beyond the term “photography”, as writers, filmmakers and art historians began to play a major role in the discourse.  This came with its challenges as many people continue to see the project as solely a photographic one, thereby neglecting or paying little importance to the literary and filmic aspect of the project. It is indeed deliberate that we have had only few exhibitions where we had to put up photographic prints on a (white) wall.

As we progress from one edition to the other, so does our experience, and we have come to the point where we realize that the idea of borders could act as a double-edged sword, therefore must be approached meticulously. It could easily play us against our dogma. The naivety that borders are something tangible and eradicable. We have come to realize that borders are what happen when an individual or a group of people decides to transcend the norm. Therefore the subjects of this project are first and foremost the participants and the very first intention to go beyond the norm – the act of becoming a fiction in other people’s reality using themselves as the proverbial guinea pig. Furthermore, there are those who we meet in their everyday reality – a crossbreed of realities occur and the offspring of this crossbreed is a circle of deconstructed dogmas and freshly acquired perceptions.

These things happen at random, and at a pace that could never be likened to a normal routine – we are constantly roller-coaster mode. We make plans and we counterplan, to an extent that haphazardness becomes our orderliness. It is never realistic to see the trip as one definite thing, it encompasses everything, failure compliments success and vise versa. It is where “wrong” is not easily written off as the opposite of what is right, but could be seen as its precursor or its consequence.

When we travel on the road trip we see flashes of images and not one single photograph or two, therefore it is completely impossible to talk of a selection of images in this context. How can we “freeze” a moment when we are swamped with infinite moments?

“Sometimes the image made does not justify the experience lived, and this amounts to a certain frustration, the shortcoming of the camera, the lens, the view and the limitations of materiality: the window screen shielding you from all the expanse out there,the van constantly moving and bumping, your position displacing at 100 miles per hour (and so are your thoughts) – all of that is lost to the click of the camera. Therefore the indecisive-moment images tell the story much more than the decisive. The true nature of the African Space is that swarming with unquantifiable moments carrying in each one of them an integral part of the people’s existence and by that, their history. Therefore, every click of the camera is history in the making.In photographing the “banal”, we tend to focus on those tiny moments, which give the “headlines” their backbones. Our concept is basically simple: to highlight the everyday US” interaction between people and the space that they occupy, and with time and consistency we would have created an anthropological archive of how people shared in their various modes of co-existence – the beauty, the harmony as well as the many contradictions”

The installation of the Invisible Borders show at the Biennale Benin 2012. View 1

The installation of the Invisible Borders show at the Biennale Benin 2012. View 2

The near-best form of presenting this project so far would be an installation that depicts a performance of imagery rather than a succession of meticulously curated photographs.  We are not interested in the photographic nature of imagery but in its performative nature, that which suggest the process as an important precursor to a conclusion, there will be no conclusion without the process, which lead to it, there will be no decisive moment without the myriad indecisive moments sandwiched in between.  We ought to make installations that convey that feeling of being overwhelmed with images upon images as we
experience from the interior of the moving vehicle, but more so because this is the reality of the African public space.

This became the inspiration for our installation at the Biennale Benin 2012, where we came up with the idea of recreating a suggestive replica of the interior of the van as we have experienced it during the trip, using the relics of the actual van since we drove in the van from Lagos to Cotonou for the festival.  The installation also featured reconstructed objects that we were obliged to use (or things that used us), such as the road signs, the checkpoint barricades etc. There was equally a large plasma screen on which images and texts from the artists were displayed in a loop – flashes of images after images, with texts. The display was comprised of the actual photographic works by photographers, photo essays that were a joint venture between the photographers and the writer Emmanuel Iduma, as well as photos of participants while on the trip. We created a “pool” of images, which tend to convey a feeling of being submerged in the experience of the trip through images rather than emphasizing on the individual approach of the artists.

A note from my diary on evening of the installation reads thus:

interested in conveying the feeling and atmosphere within the van as we journey thousands of miles traversing landscapes and people of immeasurable numeric, that feeling of wanting to take in everything in a gulp of a click yet the picture falls short of conveying anything close to what is lived. How can we convey this particular experience, which transcends the photographers’ ability to settle on a particular frame, a particular scene out of thousands?”

Having said this, it is therefore imperative to understand that we aim to go further than the act of image-making, but to seek ways to put them to use as a performative tool, to set in motion its ability of being a strong implement of sensitization. We are constantly asking the never-ending question: How can photography be used in such a way, as it becomes a tangible act of social intervention rather than art for art’s sake? How can also “seeing” with the eyes carry the entire body along?

I believe that this is the stage we find ourselves today. We do not lack the energy nor the vigor to create or be inventive, what we need in abundance is the sensitization towards myriad forms this creative energy could manifest. I believe we will head in the direction of an answer when as photographers; we begin to perform images, rather than make them.

© Emeka Okereke, Accra 2013

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