Art, Borders, Contemporary Art, culture, Featured, Photography
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Seeing in the Eye: On Photography and the Gaze

“The danger of identifying with a stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s racialized rank is to lose one own valued and enshrined difference”.

In my preoccupation with borders, movement and all the various forms of differences they presuppose, I have, more often than not, encountered the question: how can imagery (and by extension photography) play a useful role in the restitution of our world towards more conscious and correlational human relationships? As an attempt to reflect on this question, I would like to begin with the above-cited quote from Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. It would seem, at first glance, that it is a quote about reciprocity. Yes. There is that, yet it goes even further. It is a quote about affecting the gaze. Thus I would, for the purpose of my reflection, argue that everything begins with the gaze: affect the gaze and naturally, the effect reciprocates.

In the language of the Igbo people of Nigeria (one that I speak as my mother’s tongue), the gaze is central to the concept of love. As such, the word love loosely translates to “to see in the eye”. Here, we return to imagery. To see in the eye is to arrest and retain an image by which someone or something is recognised and given a place in the society. The image made through “seeing in the eye” is preceded by a societal construct that allows for easy categorisations and definitions of affiliations. Yet, the double bind here is that while the gaze is connected to a societal hegemony for which unique identity is oftentimes implied, it is by the same token, personal – a function of “one own valued and enshrined difference”. It is this claim and subsequent clinging to ownership of difference that often constitutes the elephant in the room of human interactions; that makes “seeing in the eye” devoid of mutual sharing: a “seeing past the eye”.

Since 2009, I have presided over a project called the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project. The core aim of the project is to assemble African artists – mainly photographers, writers, and filmmakers  – to engage the question of borders and imposed cartographies within the context of the 54 African States making up the continent. Central to our exploration is how imagery can be potently deployed for critical thinking, mediation, conversations around the complex realities of peoples, places, and histories of Africa, which for many years, have been summarised, flattened or romanticised to the sole advantage of those looking from the outside. Our engagement has equally extended beyond the African continent to address, in broader terms, how spaces of differences are reinforced; how borders are, in the real sense, shadows or the negative of the hard lines of differences. We do this through our annual Trans-African Road Trips where artists live and travel together across borders while producing thoughts and artistic works inspired by the everyday encounters on the road.

In 2014, during the 5th edition of the road trip project, which was the first-ever trans-continental one, we travelled from Lagos in Nigeria, to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a period of 181 days. I recall our stop in Berlin. We chose as our area of intervention, the suburban district of Marzahn – a former GDR district which continues to retain many of its peculiarities and for that, is a no-go area even for Berliners. By this time, the political climate in Germany, as we know it today, was coming into full force. By popular opinion, Marzahn is a place you don’t go if you identify as a migrant or foreigner in any form. I opted to make a photograph, which at the same time, was a public space intervention. This photograph took as a motif one of the outside benches situated in a recreational square. These benches have been nicknamed “EU benches” owing to the fact that they were sponsored by the European Union as a way of encouraging social interaction in Marzahn. This photograph, a self-portrait, has me sitting on the bench, seemingly without clothes on, save for a bunch of green shrubs (another important motif of Marzahn stemming from EU’s gentrification efforts) to lend a sparse sense of privacy.

This photograph would eventually become an object of passionate discussion during our presentation convened in Marzahn. The atmosphere in the room was at first tense as one would expect of any space where differences are addressed. But soon after, this gave way to exchanges about our presence in Marzahn. Experiences and stories were shared by the audience many of whom were from Marzahn, with some others from Berlin.

If a photograph can inspire the sharing of personal stories from lived experiences – allowing for the intersection of emotional logics –  perhaps it can play a key role in changing the gaze; in encouraging us to accept the stranger we are bound to become to ourselves when borders of differences are traversed.

*This is an abstract for a presentation prepared for a conference at the 2019 Chennai Photography Biennale.

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