Trans African Photography Project
Photography is often perceived as a medium with a unique capacity to capture truth. By design, a collective of artists mitigates any singular vision of “truth” or any one artist’s choice of content.
Founded in Lagos, Nigeria in 2009 by Emeka Okereke, the Invisible Borders: Trans-African Photography Project is a collective of artists whose primary function is to travel overland from Lagos to other regions of Africa and document their journey. The artists post blogs and photo essays along their route, depicting everything from the group eating breakfast to discreetly captured, waist-level photos snapped while crossing border checkpoints. The road trips force artists to work far outside their usual methods and artistic practices.
The most prominent display at the New Museum’s installation, Invisible Borders: Trans-African Photography Project, is a wall of images selected from multiple trips and many members. Jumoke Sanwo’s portraits and Ray-Daniels Okuego’s “Foremen” are nestled between more straightforward street photography depicting a man selling shoes, young women walking down the street, and the photographers themselves at work: taking pictures, talking, and sharing their captured images on the LCD screens of their cameras to each other and to the individuals in the photos.
The group shoots in black and white and color, urban and rural settings, images of poverty and wealth, suffering and joy. Their work complicates any photographic archive depicting “African life” and focuses on the dynamism and contradictions inherent to contemporary life, rejecting simple summation or tidy definition. It is a befitting inclusion in the New Museum exhibition entitled, The Ungovernables.
Concluding a panel discussion associated with The Ungovernables triennial, Invisible Borders artist Nana Oforiatta-Ayim made this deeply impassioned, if slightly exasperated, comment: “We are seven artists. We are not telling the story of Africa. We are telling our story.” Her remarks point to some of the impediments, goals, and motivations of this unusual photo collective that is composed of both professional and amateur photographers as well as writers and an art historian.
In an interview following the Invisible Borders panel discussion on Saturday February 182012, lifestyle photographer Jumoke Sanwo described the experience in this way: “You don’t have time to set up the perfect shot, find the perfect lighting. You don’t have time to find the exact right angle. You just have to take it. We are moving too fast and often people are suspicious of the camera. But that is beside the point anyway. It’s not about the exact perfect shot, its about that moment.”
The collective’s focus on recording and sharing fleeting moments and quotidian interactions emerge from a desire to complicate the archive, obfuscate any simple answer about what contemporary life in Africa might look like, and to use the medium to make visible the connections between photographer, subject, and audience. Each artist brings their own approach to the project, some with long-term, open-ended projects, such as Ala Kehir’s interest in architectural scaffolding, and Jumoke Sanwo’s portraits. Other artists are developing more specific bodies of work.
Inspired by planning for their trip through Chad and Sudan to Ethiopia, Ray-Daniels Okeugo plays with the notion of protection. The hardhat, a symbol of protection or safety ubiquitous at a construction site, reads incongruously when perched upon the head of the hotel manager, market woman, or young student. This “Fortification” series encouragesviewers to question fear and the methods through which we think we can protect ourselves from danger.
Kemi Akin-Nibosun’s “Pokart was Here” series is an iteration of a classic graffiti tag painted or drawn on wood, cardboard, or paper signs, held by various groups and individuals. Rather than inscribing the text upon walls or trains in its customary use signifying the graffiti artist’s territorial claim, Akin-Nibosun’s signs invite an interactive engagement with the photographic subjects and space, and simultaneously point to her own presence and the subjectivity of her image.
Physicality and a direct connection between the artist, a specific space, and an audience are vital to the Invisible Borders collective. In this regard, to consider their work as a performance art is perhaps the most productive space to begin to understand their purpose. Emeka Okereke mused that the actions of the collective could be regarded as, “an intervention, a performance, or an experiment,” in which the photographs are almost the “residue” of the moment. All of these possibilities speak to the importance of physicality, movement, and impermanence in their endeavor.
Invisible Borders’ focus on physical presence extends to another critical aspect of their endeavor: interactions with other artists. Whether in Mali for the Bamako photography biennial or Senegal for Dak’Art, the collective meets with artists along their journey, seeking to establish routes and networks of exchange between artists throughout Africa. This is the basis for the “trans-” in the “Trans-African Photography Project.” The “trans-” in the name refers literally to the trans-African Highway system that the artists traverse on their road trips and more symbolically to the goal of usurping ideas of Africa that have become static.
From the 1930’s on, concepts such as Négritude, Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness, Afrocentrism, and Afropolitanism have set out to distinguish unifying aspects of black identity. Emeka Okereke introduces Trans-Africanism as a new term to define commonality in our globalized, contemporary experience. In his catalog essay for The Ungovernables exhibition, Okereke proposes that the addition of the “trans-” in Trans-African(ism) instates contradiction, change, and transcendence as essential components of what connects Africans, and more generally all people, to each other today. He further states that the concept “attests to the non-linearity of human experience and elasticity of human capabilities.” He offers the advice: “Instead of reinforcing borders by clinging to an identity for fear of losing oneself, we ought to see ourselves as works in progress, constantly in motion and activity, finding ourselves in each other’s identity: a communal identity so to speak.”
Artwork by the Invisible Borders: Trans-African Photography Project (Including: Emeka Okereke, Kemi Akin-Nibosun, Unoma Giese, Emmanuel Iduma, Ala Khier, Chidinma Nnorom, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Amaize Ojeikere, Ray Daniels Okeugo, Uche Okpa-Iroha, Tom Saater, and Jumoke Sanwo) is included in the The Ungovernables, a triennial exhibition dedicated to exhibiting artwork by young artists from around the world, on view at the New Museum in New York from February 15 to April 22, 2012. Their work can also be found online: www.invisible-borders.com