Africa, Borders, Contemporary Art, Post-Colonial Discourse, trans-Africa
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In Search of The Collective

In beginning this reflection about the collective, I have, ringing at the back of my head, an Igbo saying: Igwe bụ ike which translates to “the collective is power”. This saying is in many ways fundamental to the social psychology of the Igbo people of Nigeria with whom I share a lineage. Elsewhere, Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist, and critic, referred to this as the Igbo’s preference for duality as opposed to singularity: “Wherever Something Stands, Something Else Will Stand Beside It”.Given that in many African cultures, the place of family and community is, in most cases, held in the highest regard, I can imagine this saying taking on different allegorical and idiomatic forms.

Thus if art is to some tangible extent a mirroring of a people’s sociocultural contexts and realities, the notion of the collective as it relates to artistic practices from such places as Africa would be a given – a natural consequence of a way of being. Rightfully so, the collective from time immemorial has served to preserve something of the dignity and humanity of those enslaved and subjugated by the maligned construct of our world often generalised as modernity.In practical terms, it offered and continues to offer, spaces for the articulation and coordination of forces, impulses, volition and not least, resources to defend the interest of most people of the world burdened under the weight of systems legitimised by capital(ism). The collective is a space where the impossible is processed, refined, and extracted out of the possibility of our differences. All the miracles of the world could only have taken place in the collective.

Yet, should we then leave things at that, and be content with the assumption that just like the expression “African Unity”, the collective is a space of “kum-ba-yah” 3, void of earth-quaking tensions and thistles of inconsistencies? What do we make of the fact that just like the collective is a space of conviviality between peoples of like minds and ideals, it could equally be a space of exclusion? More so, what do we make of the incompatibilities between the subjective and the collective where the collective centres around a close-knit, often self-appointed members more than it does on a collective vision or way of being-in-the-world?

When it has to do with the discipline/medium of artistic expression that we today know as photography – and of which I am particularly interested in here – the foremost and most accomplished collective is the Magnum Photos founded in 1947. Not too long ago, it published yet another book focusing on its legacy to celebrate seventy years of its existence. Besides some lofty claims and unforgivable generalisations that “the history of Magnum is the history of the world”4, the place and importance of this humongous, incredibly active agency which boasts of a great number of the world’s most proactive photographers, cannot be disputed. Yet, while it may seem unlikely given the sustained success over the years, to say that it was not always rosy for the members to work together under a collective umbrella is a gross understatement. Russell Miller, in his 1999 publication about the agency, writes:

“[…] it is nothing short of a miracle that the world’s greatest photo agency has survived to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. […] it has reeled from crisis to crisis, usually financial, sometimes emotional, occasionally personal and often potentially terminal. It is sometimes claimed, not facetiously, that at any moment in time, there are 500 photographers around the world yearning to get into Magnum and fifty (in other words the entire membership) yearning to get out. […] Eugene Richards was so appalled by the experience of the first meeting that he could have left the agency that very day. ‘There were tirades that went on for hours and there was a sort of pleasure in the abuse. This kind of behaviour among such sophisticated and talented group of people was quite shocking. And it went on and on […]’”5

What then kept Magnum agency going? Could it be that locked at the interstices of those pettinesses and emotional haemorrhages is a more grandiose and humbling vision of the world that shoots open, like an inflated parachute, the moment the photographers step out of the meeting office and unto the world? A vision that made them not necessarily loyal to one another but to something much greater than the sum of their being? A vision which puts a peg to how far they would let their subjectivity and egos impede a collective vision they all embody albeit in different forms?

One thing that Magnum has in common with Depth Of Field (DOF) – a photography collective founded in 2001 by a group of Nigerian photographers – is the humble beginning. Just like the first meeting which heralded the beginning of Magnum took place “over a convivial lunch at the Museum of Modern Art New York in the Spring of 1947”,6 the founding members of DOF – Uche James Iroha, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Toyin Sokefun (now known as Ty Bello) and Amaize Ojeikere – came up with the idea to form, arguably, the first 21st century photography collective in Africa7
as they were busy working together; helping each other to install their photographs at the 4th edition of the Bamako Photography Festival.

These photographers were amongst the best younger than forty years of age working out of Lagos. They were also friends and thus an intellectual support system to one another. This condition of friendship became the foundational, but also operational, premise of the collective. Three years later, Zaynab Odunsi and myself joined the collective; making six members. This was the only addition to the membership in all the active years of the collective.

Unlike Magnum, the vision of DOF did not, from the onset, include the ambition to make the collective a formal platform much less a lucrative venture. What the platform did for the photographers – given the lack of formal institutions of photography, but also the heavy reliance on workshops organised by mainly European cultural centres and embassies – was to offer an ecosystem that allowed for the sharing of ideas, and articulation of thought-processes.

I recall how, almost every Friday of the week, we would meet at a chosen informal spot saddled with contact sheets from our “personal works”.8
Over drinks and food, we would discuss photography and everything in between. DOF as a platform helped to establish a mindset driven by a strong volition to regain agency of our narratives, methodology, and way of seeing the world. In this light, it is not far-fetched to say that, with a new century, the platform signalled a new beginning.

Notwithstanding, DOF was a typical example of a collective that accented the literal notion of the collective as a group of individuals who work and contribute equally to the outcome shared by the whole, even though it did not always operate this way in the real sense. The disparity between this idealism of equal contribution and the real-life situation became, in my view, one contributor to its self-induced inertia that would slowly, but eventually, bring its activities to a state of dormancy. Had the notion of the collective (or equality) been placed much more on a well-articulated vision, perhaps DOF would have continued to thrive and grow in relevance. While the emphasis on convivial interactions between friends who were also colleagues helped to instil a culture of profound humane relations, not doing enough to anchor the collective to a vision beyond and safe from the subjective and its tendency to direct gratification unto itself, became the Achille’s heels of DOF. It so happened that as the members became more successful in their respective preoccupations, there was no longer a need for the collective.

However, the brief period of DOF’s activity was intense enough to inspire many other collaborative projects. For instance, following on the heels of DOF was Black Box – a Lagos-based photography collective founded by photographers who were very much inspired by the activities of DOF. Although there were many reasons to believe that it was a hasty attempt to capitalise on the outward success of the time. Where there was a slight hint of intentionality, it was to respond to the dissatisfaction stemming from photographers feeling excluded by the static membership of DOF. In other words, Black Box started already distracted by secondary matters. The collective was doomed from the onset.

In 2009, the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organisation was founded off the back of a rudimentary idea to bring together a group of Nigerian photographers to make a road trip from Lagos to Bamako in the framework of the 8th Bamako Photography Encounters taking place in the same year. The idea was to travel together in a single vehicle for three weeks while creating photographic works inspired by their experiences of border crossings. The photographers scheduled to make a presentation of their experience during the Bamako Festival. There were altogether ten participants; amongst them three DOF members and two Black Box members. It was by all sign a collective project. Today, the Invisible Borders Road Trip Project is on its 8th edition and 10th year of existence.

The positioning of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project in many ways lends credence to the assertion that it was a spin-off of the collective energy and temperament ushered in by the Depth of Field. If DOF put something in the air during their active years, it collected in what eventually became known as Invisible Borders.

I remember when, in 2010, in Dakar, midway into the 2nd edition of the Trans-African Road Trip, there was a meeting during which one of the founding participants raised a question about the status of Invisible Borders. He proposed that it became a collective with fixed members embarking on the road trip every year. The logic here is that with fixed members, there will be continuity across the discourse and works created over time. This meeting was a defining moment in the project’s history. As the Artistic Director, I made a case for flexible, open participation whereby each year, we invite participants through an open call to take part on the trip. My reason was as clear as clean water: any collective aim established solely on the exclusivity of membership rather than on a conceptual position or vision is bound to collapse or become obsolete sooner rather than later. Besides, as a Trans-African Project, we have already put ourselves on the path of thinking in terms of fluidity. Of encouraging a platform that will serve as the space which opens up between preconceived notions and freshly acquired perceptions in the critiquing of the psychology and sociopolitical realities of Africa.

The Invisible Borders Trans-African project is not a collective as much as it is a collective way of being and thinking. It is a project that fully recognises that the journey from point A (the individuals who come to the project with their limitations, assumptions, preconceived notions as well as strengths – a function of a defined “self” – the subjective) to point B (freshly acquired perception, clarity, intimate knowledge – the collective) is full of tumultuous tensions, precariousness, and thistles of inconsistencies. We do not shy away from this reality, neither is our aim an effort to encourage contrived relations void of disquietude. It is not a safe space where this means a space of comfort, self-preservation, and exclusion from the complexness and inexactitudes of the world encapsulating it. If anything, it is like Chinua Achebe’s middle ground: “the home of doubt and indecision, of suspension of disbelief, of make-believe, of playfulness, of the unpredictable, of irony”9. The project embraces these tumultuous tendencies; more often than not, this is the nature of the road and the ground shifting under our feet – to reset and remap imposed cartographies.

Lugard’s Rest House (Participants of Invisible Borders Trans-Nigerian Road Trip, Borders Within 2016). Lokoja, Nigeria, 2016. Emeka Okereke

More than bad roads, more than stringent border post, what has been most threatening in the project’s course, is the subjective’s tendency to cringe back unto itself—and by so doing weaponise itself against the collective—at the slightest sensing of losing its well-protected self–what Toni Morrison refers to as the fear of losing “one’s own valued and enshrined difference”.10 When the subjective operates this way, it is only a thin line shy of being xenophobic towards the collective. On some occasions; with some participants of past Trans-African Road Trip project, we have had to deal with the ugly consequences of well-meaning intentions that deteriorated right at the crucial point where the collective was to be birthed.

If the subjective is to be purposeful, it must first find its place in the collective. There is no subjectivity for subjectivity’s sake. The subjective ought to be at the service of the collective. Put differently, the collective is a precipitate resulting from the sublimation of the subjective. When we allow ourselves to think of the collective, not as a flattening of subjectivity but a sublimation of it – for which duration, location, cultural contexts, personal histories across space and time are key catalysts and solvents – we envision a more connected world held together by different degrees of tautness upon which our actions travel. The subjective will curb the extent to which, at the slightest awareness of its insecurities and fears of the impossible, it becomes a threat to the collective. Then, the collective will be directly proportional to how less we expect from the self we give, a direct or immediate gratification. This is what I meant earlier on when I wrote: all the miracle of the world could only have taken place in the collective.

First published in the “Streams of Consciousness”, The 12th Bamako Encounters Reader, 2020. 

 

Footnotes:

1. Achebe, Chinua. “The Education of a British-Protected Child”. London: Penguin Books. 2009. 5-7

2. Here, I make reference to the other face of modernity often not talked about, as articulated, for instance, by Walter D. Mignolo in his seminal works, “The Darker Side of Western Modernity”.

3. I do not use this word in the sense of its origin or original meaning. It is an adopted “slang” I employ to emphasise a hold-hands-sing-together mentality that is often an outward manifestation of unity and cohesiveness.

4. This quotation is part of a review by The Herald in relation to “Magnum Manifesto”, a book about Magnum Photos published in 2017 by Thames & Hudson. See link: https://thamesandhudson.com/magnum-manifesto-9780500544556#gallery

5. Miller, Russell. “Magnum: Fifty Years At The Frontline Of History:The Story Of The Legendary Photo Agency”. New York: Grove Press. 1999. 8-13

6. Miller, Russell. “Magnum: Fifty Years At The Frontline Of History:The Story Of The Legendary Photo Agency”. New York: Grove Press. 1999. 8-9

7. I say this not to exclude the possibility that there are other collectives before, or operational at the same time as DOF however unpopular. This information is based in first-hand knowledge. Should this not be entirely the case, I stand to be corrected.

8. At the time, photographers who considered themselves artists separated their commercial photography from their artistic works. They called their artistic projects personal works. Their commercial works funds their personal works. This tradition continues until today for many Nigerian photographers.

9. Achebe, Chinua. “The Education of a British-Protected Child”. London: Penguin Books. 2009. 5-7

10. Morrison, Toni. “The Origin of Others”. Massachusetts: Havard University Press. 2017. 30

Cover photo: Participants of Invisible Borders/Drik/Pathshala/Chobi Mela Trans-Bangladeshi Road Trip, February 2020. Emeka Okereke.

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