On Saturday, 27th October 2018, Nigerian photographer, filmmaker, writer and visual artist, Emeka Okereke, was conferred France’s prestigious insignia of Chevalier De l’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the Ministry of Culture of France. The award ceremony took place at the new Alliance Francaise, Lagos. The event was officiated by the Ambassador of France to Nigeria, Mr. Jérôme Pasquier who decorated Mr. Okereke with the medal of the Order.
This award was conferred as recognition of his contribution to the discourse on art in Africa, France and the world at large. The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) is an Order of France, established on 2 May 1957 by the Minister of Culture. Its purpose is the recognition of significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields.
Okereke will be one of the youngest Nigerian and African to be conferred with this honor. He joins the likes of Zanele Muholi, David Goldblatt, Shorna Urvashi, Olafur Eliasson, Tim Burton, Vanessa Paradis, Eva Green, George Clooney and many more acclaimed creatives who have received the same distinction in the past.
Below is Emeka Okereke’s acceptance speech and photos from the event:
Mr. Ambassador, I thank you for this honour that comes in the way of being conferred the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres.
First and foremost, I dedicate this recognition, as with every good fortune of my life, to the Almighty who continues to guide me in un-dimming love.
Some 15 years ago, I won a photography award in one of the most important photography festivals in the African continent – the Bamako Photography Festival in Mali. I was 23 years old. This would be the most obvious launch pad for what would, for me, become an intriguing journey through art and photography which, in hindsight, brought me a lot of beautiful encounters and priceless experiences. I would eventually, through this award, go to, and live in Paris – the first city of Europe I experienced. The city where I had all my culture shocks. Today, I have the French language – amongst countless other beautiful and memorable experiences – to show for this.
But before all of this, it was first, meeting and working with the photographer and educator Uche James Iroha that began this journey for me. I was a young man who arrived in Lagos from the East of Nigeria armed only with the desire to discover what life has to offer. I had learned through my religious doctrine that if you have faith as little as a mustard seed, you could move mountains. But I also learned that faith without work is no faith. So I was ready to put all of that to test.
Although, I would go on to study art and photography at the Fine Art school of Paris, with a scholarship from the French embassy of Nigeria and finally obtaining my master’s degree, my first photography school was, in reality, the ecosystem of photographers made up of the likes Uche James Iroha, Kelechi Amadi Obi, Amaize Ojeikere, Don Barber, TY Bello, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Jide Adeniyi Jones, Pa JD Okhai Ojeikere, Tam Fiofori and more.
To be more specific, it was the photography collective Depth Of Field – made up of Uche, Amaize, TY, Kelechi, Zaynab Odunsi and myself – that would prepare me for the world. We never had a photography school in Nigeria, but I was fortunate to find myself in the midst of some the most ingeniously creative people setting the pace for what art and photography from Nigeria would eventually become.
Everything I have done from then on, and up until this, could easily be traced back to the energy, vigour, and defiant spirit nurtured in those times.
During my time in France, I learned, out of necessity, the French language. But more than in France herself, this addition to the Igbo and English I already spoke was more useful for the work I would do through the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project which, for 9 years, has seen me traveling and working across African countries, many of which are French-speaking. As a matter of fact, I flew down from the capital of Cameroun this morning where I am currently involved in the 8th edition of our trans-African road trip. The French language has helped me to do work beyond the anglophone speaking countries of Nigeria. For this, I am most grateful.
This award, in many ways, underscores the fact of my relationship with France and the French language.
As I continue to create and work with the French language especially in, but not limited to, the African countries, I am aware of the continuous colonial implications present in this relationship between France and it’s former colonies – which are stubborn remnants of a colonial past. My position will be, as always, one of speaking out against any form of neocolonial mindset, exploitation and maneuvers while upholding what is equitable, dignifying and de-colonial about this relationship.
I gladly accept this honour, especially as I did not ask for it. I want to believe this is an indication that the French ministry of culture considers my work and my position with regards to the relationship between France and Africa as progressive.
On that note, I would like to thank all my family members who were able to come today. I feel blessed by your presence.
The same extends to all friends and colleagues who are here today.