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Two Months in Barcelona: A Recap

Yesterday, it rained and somewhat doused the sunniness of the city. Yet, it rendered the coal-tarred roads, streets, and pavement glasslike and reflective — like a mirage. There is something about the earth-colour aesthetic prevalent in the city. It lends warmth and cosiness even to a gloomy atmosphere. In the sun’s absence, the sky acts like a giant softbox, the rain a diffuser.

Tungsten-lit stalls and shops come alive — like a film set. A framed iconic photo of Nina Simone is placed almost centre frame. I would wonder why it had to be so evident. I didn’t go into the shop to ask. But I allowed myself the thought that the story could be more intimate than meets the eye: “I had a chance encounter with Nina Simone, which changed my life”.

You see, here in Barcelona, there is a veil over blackness. That much I have noticed since my arrival. Such a veil makes invisibility and hyper-visibility feel like two sides of the same coin. I still do not have enough appraisal of my inkling to draw a durable conclusion. But I will return to this thought. In the meantime, I give you a glimpse of Barcelona through the balcony of my eyes.

Instagram post after ten days of arrival in Barcelona

My first travel of the year, and since the lockdown, saw me leaving Berlin for Barcelona where I lived for two months, from February to April 2021. 

The context was a research residency program to which I was invited by The Over Art. The peculiarity of this residency is multi-pronged: it took place within the context of a lockdown in Barcelona. It was located in a 4-star hotel temporarily closed due to lockdown. There were 64 rooms across six floors, a kitchen, a lobby, and a rooftop – all of which I had access to with a swipe of a card key. My makeshift studio and living space were located on the sixth floor – a step below the rooftop. The residency was a “carte blanche” in every sense of the word. 

Sara Catalan wears two hats interchangeably: she is the curator of The Over Art and the Director of Pol & Grace Hotel. She found a way to make art intrinsic to the idea of a hotel as a place of hospitality and temporal homeliness by inviting artists to live and intervene in the hotel, with full access to the facilities therein. In return, the artists are expected to leave one or two art works, created in the course of the residency, in the rooms they occupied. The works, as I understand it, become a symbolic inference of the artists’ continuous presence long after they are gone. Yet it is not so much about the presence of the artists as it is how these works make of the rooms a space of communion between the artists and the many visitors/sojourners who will pass through them – the artwork being the “portal of encounter”. 

Sara’s disposition is one of an enabler. From a curatorial standpoint, it speaks to an understanding of the much-underemphasised fact that the artist relies on, more than on any other factor, an environment conducive if not synchronous with his/her inner being. Here we speak of the alignment of frequencies, vibes and energies. This is often taken for granted even as it is not a given. Sara made it clear, from the onset, that she was willing to allow for the artist’s process and sense of inward orientation to guide the outcome of the residency. 

Thus, during the two months I spent in Barcelona, Pol & Grace hotel was a space for the articulation of thoughts and impulses derived from myriad encounters as much as it was a space of refuge. A space that allows for “working out the vocabulary of my silence” as Muriel Rukeyser inferred in the poem “Speed of Darkness”. 

It was nothing like a retreat into the mountains or “nature” for Pol & Grace Hotel is situated at the heart of Gracia – once a suburban village in the pre-Gaudi era, now an ostensive bourgeoise area of Barcelona. It was from Gracia I would literally “descend” unto the rest of the city at every point in time. 

I began my “breaking in” into the city by running to the Mediterranean Sea. The sea is exactly a 5km run from the hotel. Two weeks into my stay, I added a gym routine to the running. These physical exertions soon became a ritual; serving as a metaphor for the layered process of the healing and strengthening taking place within me. Whatever boisterous outlook I exuded during the day, most likely was the result of a successful morning workout session. 

Encounters 


I would later realise that taking me to the livelier part of Gracia which still retains a somewhat village-like feel was not something Sara reserved uniquely for me: she did this with other people who arrived in the city and stayed temporally in the hotel. Yet, that first walk through Gracia became the most recurrent approach to encountering the city. Barcelona without the lockdown receives an estimated 32 million visitors per year, while 1.6 million people call it home at a given time. Thus, the Barcelona I experienced for two months was one divested of its swarm of tourists. While this gaping whole leaves the city at the mercy and enjoyment of the locals (many of whom felt they were discovering their city for the first time), it also made Barcelona and its people inaccessible and withdrawn for someone like me who spoke no Spanish/Catalan whatsoever. 

Mother and Son, El Raval, Barcelona 2021

Insert: 

When we say “locals” in Barcelona, we almost always mean Catalonians. That’s another layer to navigate to fully understand your orientation if, like me, you just found yourself — Spanishless, foreign, passer-by, yet sea- and sea-food-loving — in this Mediterranean city. 

Everywhere one goes, the language of street walls is one of anarchy. Catalonians already have autonomy, but they want more. To what end exactly, especially considering that they are firmly sandwiched in a European-Union grip that isn’t looking to let go anytime soon? 

It reminds me of a story to which I am personally linked— of the Igbos of West Africa whose unsuccessful attempt, in the 60s, to secede from the “political contraption” known as Nigeria, continues to be the subject of political inquietude until this very day.

On the one hand, the fight for independence is inscribed in the subjectivist disposition of our time. Still, on the other hand, it borders on essentialism, especially if there is little in it which takes into consideration that the world is becoming more plural. What it means to be Catalonian or Biafran has become tentacular.

In the world speedily approaching us from the other end we call the future, it will be self-sabotaging to think of autonomy and self-enclosure as synchronous.

Aided, again, by Sara, my encounters were mostly premeditated starting with people of the art circles of Barcelona. We also met with Mansour of Top Manta, an initiative that succeeded in conjuring into existence a lifestyle brand based on amplifying the voices of African migrants in Barcelona. One of the few chance encounters was with Alain Hamada who runs a small and newly-established gallery of African artefacts and memorabilia in Raval, itself a multicultural neighbourhood of Barcelona.  

My encounters took on a meaningful twist when I eventually met Tania Safura Adam, a Mozambican journalist and curator who, through her Radio Africa project and many artist interventions in art institutions in the Catalonian region, has become a significant locus in the intersecting network of Blacks in Barcelona and Catalonia. She opened up her coffers of contacts to Black actors and initiatives, some of which I could not meet before I left Barcelona. However, it was through her that I met the likes of Amadou Bocar Sam who works at an initiative representing the welfare of mainly West African migrants, and Jules Bibiko Njami a musician and, brother to the Paris-based art critic and curator, Simon Njami. 

Insert: Listen to my interview with Tania Safura Adam in a segment for her Radio Africa project. Also featuring Sara Catalan and Reem Alfahad: Conversem amb l’Emeka Okereke

On the first day of our meeting, Tania would take us (myself and Sara) to a scrap yard at the fringe of Barcelona. This scrap yard is the culmination point for many “undocumented” African migrants engaged in the informal racket of metal waste picking in Barcelona. As an El-Pais article delineates, this sector – considering its indispensability in the ecosystem of waste management in Barcelona – has no reason whatsoever to be informal except the fact that there is no legality, thus no legitimacy bestowed on the individuals who work within it. 

Every day, as early as five am, hundreds of individuals spread out into the crevices of the city picking metal wastes. The image is thus: usually a black young man is dragging a shopping cart across the city. He stops and inspects, flips and perhaps picks a scrap of metal. Drops it into the four-wheeled cart and drags it away. He almost always has his earphones on. He is probably listening to music or blocking out the sound of life around him. He pushes the trolley forward, and hardly looks up or looks around him. The people around him do not look at him either, indeed do not “see” him. As such, the possibility of any encounter, outside the crystallised image of a black figure nudging a shopping cart filled with discarded things, is unimaginable. 

If you lived in the district of Gracia as I did, it is this crystallised, monotonous and repetitive image of the black figure – fiddling and preoccupied with “nothing” – you are availed. While the neighbourhood is one of the most frequented by the waste pickers (because more wealth produces more waste), it is also where their image is an aberration the most. The image stands alone and out of place. They are like an apparition in the otherwise mundane bourgeoise scenery of Gracia. When people go shopping in Gracia, their cart is full of desirable items of which their recognised value is implied by the worth of money paid. The undocumented migrant picking waste in the streets of Barcelona is seen with the same shopping cart, but filled with “unrecognisable” objects; worthless because its intrinsic money-worth has been emptied of them. Since most glance at a passerby superficially feeds off appearance (which itself, flirts with, and courts superficiality), I often imagine to myself how invisible, and zombie-like these waste pickers must be. They are the object of one’s blindsight and blissful oblivion to privilege. 

Only on visiting the scrapyard did the ossified image began to falter. We arrived around the end of the day. Some of them were seated around – resting from what has been estimated as a 300 km trek, from morning to evening. We met them chatting with each other, smiling and doing something other than picking metals and pushing trolleys. We met Jennifer Uju (or better to say: she approached us). By her disposition, and the first utterance, I could tell she was Nigerian. She exuded combustible energy, immediately taking charge of the dynamics of our encounters and subsequent conversation. She wanted to know, as expected, why we were there. Her suspicion is reminiscent of a similar experience by Frantz Fanon in his recount of the “Daily life of douars” featured in his posthumous essay compilation, Alienation and Freedom

“However, if the stranger is sacred and respectable, he is also the Other, one who comes from elsewhere, who has lived under other skies. This is why the presence of the traveller who gives himself defenceless to his host engenders a feeling of uneasiness: he represents the unknown, the mystery. Even if he divulges his thoughts and opens up his heart directly, he cannot prevent anxiety from emerging all around him. If various systems of signals make him familiar to us, to all intents and purposes, he represents a system of reference that escapes us”. 

The strangers, in this instance, were Tania, Sara and myself. You could tell that Jennifer spoke from a place of unmitigated exuberance as she did from nervousness. But what she gave to me personally, beyond loads of concentrated information on life at the scrapyard, is humanness to the image I have inescapably harboured of black bodies picking metals in Barcelona. There was something about her confidence that makes one feel she’s got her life intact despite the many signs of its cracks and fragmentations. She was unapologetic as she was cautious. Yet in her eyes as well as occasional facial and bodily gestures, she made the atmosphere feel homely. This is a woman who knows kindness because that too is a tool you must have in your toolbox if you must survive these streets and keep the way open for chance opportunities. 

Jennifer would eventually ask us if “you have something for me”, in the way of a reward for her time and information. I didn’t know what to give her. I didn’t have enough money to give that wouldn’t, in a similar vein, amount to a belittling of the values I ascribe to our encounter. She may not have seen things the same way. But the value of our encounter, where it relates to me, is mine to weigh and safeguard. So, no – no money. Tania, being a mother as is Jennifer, was able to weigh in on this aspect tangibly. They spoke of children; at some point agreeing that Tania will share some of her children’s outgrown clothes with Jennifer. The next day, Tania followed through on her promise. This seemingly uneventful gesture became, for me, a strong anchor of respect for Tania’s person. 

Nzukota

The residency in Barcelona entered a second phase when Reem Alfahad joined me from Berlin. Reem and I have been collaborating on a project called Nzukota, an Igbo word which translates to “a gathering” or “coming together”. This project aims to conjure junctures and spaces for the enactment of togetherness. Togetherness not only as means but of itself, an end. One can also think of this as assuming positions from which to insist on the distinction between a universal world and a world “in-common”. As Achille Mbembe noted in Necropolitics, a universal world presumes something complete in which, for other things to be whole and have any semblance of belonging, is to be included or integrated. A world in-common is a world in relation. It is a world that feeds off the alternating currents of duality. As such, our first project was to embark on a durational exploration of the concept of home as being “here and elsewhere” – a proposal expounded by the French-Martinican critic, Edouard Glissant in his seminal work, Poetics of Relation. 

We started in Berlin; hinging our collaboration on the spark of our first encounter at an art event months earlier. Since then, our journeys have intertwined and evolved in surprising ways. What we have in common is that both of us were born “at crossroads” as Chinua Achebe puts it. Thus Nzukota holds something of our being and moving in the world; how we go about the activation and animation of our duality. 

In Barcelona, we kicked off our reflection from the vantage point of the Mediterranean sea. A sea as historic as it is volatile. We recorded sounds of sea waves hitting the concrete dykes at the shore as we did our conversations – impromptu as they come. We had both chance and curated encounters that, in turn, formed the basis for further reflection. Central to our free-flowing exploration is the emphasis on the word “encounter”. It is a word we did not take for granted, neither was it limited to human relations. Yet, it soon became apparent that through this project, we are venturing into the volatile distance sandwiched between “here and elsewhere”, to inhabit it in our way and consequently, demystify it.  

To demystify the distance between “here and elsewhere” is a necessary process. This should, however, not be mistaken with taking the distance for granted. If anything, it is to honour it through the effort to understand it. It is worth noting that to many who straddle this distance as a function of their being-in-the-world – say, the migrants who risk their lives and the hopes of loved ones to cross the desert or the Mediterranean Sea – it carries unimaginable weight and value. Yet for the most part, the narrative of this distance is a fictitious one strewn from modernity’s libidinous fixation on the figure of the migrant as the outer-wall figure. This fictitiousness is at the same time the wilful negation and delegitimisation of the duality; not least of all potency, shoring up the often tenacious disposition of those who traverse or inhabit this distance. That being said, the Nzukota project is inscribed in the volition to collapse the distance between here and elsewhere without negating its histories, values and potentials. The idea of home we explore points away from the concept of “Heimat” currently pervading political discourses in present-day Germany. If we understand Heimat to be something akin to what Achille Mbembe calls the “sanctuarization” of one’s enclosure, we understand home as a space or attitude which engenders the possibility of multi-contextual relation regardless of its nature, geography or degree of sedentariness. Much of these thoughts will inform how the materials gathered thus far will be arranged and layered into sonic experiences segmented, as if a book, into chapters. The project will be available online as well as make its way into sound exhibitions. 

As a way of wrapping up the residency, Sara Catalan and I had an hour-and-half long podcast conversation during which we reminisced, as much as concretised, concepts and positions explored throughout the residency. Listen to the recording here:

Conversation: Emeka Okereke and Sara Catalan | Pol & Grace Hotel, Barcelona 2021.

Suffice to say that my time in Barcelona, at the Pol & Grâce Hotel, has been one of those uncanny positive and constructive outcome of the Coronavirus “siege”. Much of the intimate way of navigating the city were thanks to the subduing nature of the lockdown. 

In subsequent writings, I will stretch out my reflections on some of the remarkable encounters.   

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