Ask the Curator: Uche Okpa-Iroha
Leading contemporary photographer and curator Uche Okpa-Iroha holds a Bachelor of Technology degree in Food Engineering from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Nigeria. Since graduating, he has participated in major exhibitions within and outside Nigeria including the 10th Havana Biennial, Havana (2009), African Emerging Photography, Paris Photo (2011), The Ungovernables (Invisible Borders Group) New Museum, New York (2012) and GO-SLOW: Diaries of Personal and Collective Stagnation in Lagos (New Directions in Contemporary Photography), Skoto Gallery, New York (2013). Okpa-Iroha has also won several significant awards including the Seydou Keita Award for the best photography creation at the Bamako Encounters (2009) with the ‘Under Bridge Life’ project, as well as the Jean Paul Blachere Prize. Other nominations include the Prix Pictet Award ‘Growth’ in 2010 and the National Geographic All Roads Photography program in 2011. He is a contributor to several publications including Lagos – the City at Work and Nigerians Behind the Lens.
You are a founding member of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project, and part of the group’s first two road trips to Bamako, Mali in 2009 and Dakar, Senegal in 2010. What led to its establishment and how would you evaluate its success over the years?
The idea to go on a road trip came up in 2009. Emeka Okereke and I, were both invited to be part of the 8th Bamako Photography Biennale that same year. We were given tickets to fly to Bamako, but Emeka had other ideas and he came up with this interesting suggestion to travel by road, to see Africa from the ground level and experience the continent first hand. And because we needed money to fund this novel venture, we returned our tickets to the biennale’s organisers and luckily were given the equivalent in cash. To make it more interesting and meaningful, we got our colleagues and friends to join in. At the end, we were about 10 artists who made the trip to Bamako – comprising of photographers, writers and bloggers. It was fascinating and challenging as well. I recall we used this danfo bus provided by Uche James-Iroha that we named Black Maria. I must say that we didn’t do the bus good because in the excitement and euphoria as we progressed on the trip, we fed her with the wrong food in Lome, Togo. We pumped in diesel instead of petrol and this incident marked the real invisible border we encountered, besides the usual border control chicanery. It was at this point that the project, Invisible Borders became tangible.
Your photographic project, ‘Under Bridge Life’ won you the Seydou Keita Award for Best Photographic Creation at the 8th Bamako Encounters in 2009, a work inspired after observing wealth and poverty amidst the roadway infrastructure in Lagos. How has this recognition encouraged you to raise more public awareness of issues regarding basic infrastructure and societal development in Africa?
I have always known that photography as an art form fulfills the roles art plays in the society. As much as it reports reality, it also has the potential to be manipulated in context to what the subject is. However, as a tool, photography can provoke questions about how our society is run. It can also represent certain human conditions in unique ways that no other endeavour can fully express. The ‘Under Bridge Life’ is one project that challenged me as a photographer because it touched on the sensibilities and sensitivities that border around the state of human living and the environment. Lagos is a city of paradoxes and often times, we seem to overlook or not care about what happens in the under bellies of this urban enclave. The city is a magnet of some sort because of its cosmopolitan bearing. Every hour, thousands move in droves into the city – to have a piece of it, of the action and all that Lagos can offer. Unfortunately, because of the negligence of the government, the infrastructure of roads and flyovers inaugurated in the late 60’s and early 70’s has been pulverised by the masses because of pressure, and nobody has cared to pay attention. It’s like a reaction without an antidote or remedy, with the city reacting to the daily influx of man and machinery. The roads are choked and toxic fumes envelope the atmosphere. The only way to narrate this quagmire and avoid documentary heroism, is to document them in the best way possible, and present the narrative in a humane way to the public, mainly to educate and create awareness about the way we live and appropriate our spaces, and to those in government as visual petitions – as tangible evidence of what they don’t see, what they ignore and what they refuse to pay attention to. The work has a voice and the capacity to instigate or provoke conversations whether they are presented as an exhibition, in a book form or any other publication, over social media and through conventional media. This is what art is all about and that is why it is essential to provoke. Under ‘Bridge Life’ is a reference to accidental shelters all over the world. It can be anywhere; Accra, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin and so on.
Your photographic series’ Plantation Boy‘, is a humourous intrusion built from forty photographs from the film, The Godfather. Here you photographed yourself in the studio and inserted your image into well-known stills of the film to engage in familiar conversations and action sequences. What inspired this project and how can it be used to address issues of representation and identity?
My main inspiration is the movie itself and the fact that it was celebrating its 40th anniversary since production on March 16,1972. I produced ‘Plantation Boy’ in 2012 as a tribute to this masterpiece. However, I’m interested in the transatlantic relocation and dislocation of Africans and the impact of this ‘forced relocation’ including slave trade, both on the diaspora and in the continent. We as Africans who reside here (on the continent), cannot wish away this phenomenon.
I started the project in my second year at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam. I had already adopted a different approach or style, which is more conceptual and which evolved over time from 2008 to 2012. Coupled with my numerous travels combing the streets of Lagos and other African countries, I built up a repertoire of work, having full grip of the language photography offers, the knowledge of how the image industry operates (mainly from the Global North), the confidence and the network while winning a few awards there. The issues bordering on identity and being African naturally manifested in my work together with the Western media’s divergent views about Africa being always at the edge of the precipice; a continent tethering and always on the verge of wars, survival, negativity of life with the full colouration of depravity and an agglomeration of ‘Afro pessimism’. I decided to change my lens and find an alternative viewpoint to understand who I am and my continent. I needed to speak an alternative language in an effort to question some of these specificities that have now become monstrous and institutionalised. It was at this point that I did a series which I titled ‘Veiled’ (in 2011). This was my first conceptual project on identity and issues that border around the under-representation and mis-representation of Africa.
Then came ‘The Plantation Boy’ in 2012. The Godfather movie, which was written by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, became my reference point and platform to subjectively explore the representation of the presence of an omission in a society, which we all know had Africans and still does. The movie’s central theme is the family, which stands for identity and a form of representation in any society. I had to look beyond the perverse culture of violence of the Italian subculture in the United States (at that period) to question the representation of the “Other”, which most people who have seen the movie would overlook.
In the movie there is the under-representation and mis-representation of the Black man. You have to listen well and see in between the movie’s narrative to draw it out. Representations can be in the form of visual imagery (still or video), films, advertisement, texts and so on. These are much more than plain likenesses –they are basically ideological tools of control. As an artist, I have to question them. It’s not about the movie itself, the characters or who produced it, but about the representative message of the “Self” and the “Other”.
Photography being one of the common languages of contemporary society and an important cultural medium in modernity enjoys a strong position in art, media and our everyday lives. Since its introduction 1839, it has informed us on various issues and events, and influenced us while constantly challenging our understanding of its form, as well as the camera tool. Arming myself with this new information, I became my own subject, focusing on the representation of the African body (both by portrait and by proxy), in my photographs with the intention to draw attention to the continent using cinematic narratives. With intermittent bouts of humour and catharsis, this newfound visual path, which at first was experimental, imaginatively highlights a subaltern identity hence creating a new form of dialogue. I mounted the rostrum and assumed the toga of the political and personal, as well as forms of representation via the genre of portraiture.
With this newfound voice or language, I try to generate an illusion as well as provoke a rethink of the original narratives to prompt a new discourse. The audience is coaxed into forming a perception or ideas based on the imagery before them.
The bottom line is that I found a ‘sassy’ way to speak – a new and different language (from my entry point in photography in late 2005), mixed and multi-layered in its context, but with a core theme founded on what could be referred to as the ‘subjective representation of the presence of an omission’ i.e, the representation of the marginalised, the “Other” or foreign culture that was ignored, in situ.
The central theme of your work is based on the notion of place, social strife, exclusion, displacement in Africa and more recently, racial representation in Western popular culture. How would you react to some critics that these images at best, reinforce negative stereotypes thrust on Africa by the West?
Most of the visions (or visuals) have been reported about Africa on the fronts you have mentioned, are established and institutionalised. You cannot dismantle them per se. So whatever negative information we have of Africa is from the Western sensibility because of their control and access to the media, tools of visual imagery, archiving and so on. However, we can use them as historical materials for reference. The visions are master narratives that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Photographers from the continent didn’t have the tools and access they do now. But the tide has changed, and with digital technology and its evolution, we can now play the visual image politics and become part of the ecosystem.
Photography now plays a key role on the contemporary African art scene because of the huge interest and participation especially from/and by the “millennials”. The accessibility of the medium, from the social, economic, and market points of view has instigated the international orientation of photographers from Africa through their involvement in international residencies, exhibitions, biennales and festivals that have provided them and their works, platforms of visibility. The resultant effect is the production; provision and presentation of imagery from a continent that has always tickled the fancy of/and fascinated the occident.
This new set of images about Africa produced by Africans, and other embedded sensibilities are gradually making inroads into the international media circles and other agencies. The interesting thing here is that they are not just challenging the institutions, the master narratives and other hegemonic apparati of information dissemination, they are countering all those stereotypical images we all have seen and/or are aware of. The ‘Plantation Boy’ series is one such work that seeks to counter marginal representations. A master narrative will not showcase Africa as knowledgeable; it will always show a less or non-classic population. It will not show coevality and contemporaneity.
‘The Plantation Boy’ tried as much as possible to counter these notions. Images (both still, video, films and so on) from the continent, try to be truthful, believable, honest and direct from the heart. The fact that the producers are all here (on the continent) or have experienced Africa in her real make-up is a virtue. But we are still in the minority because we don’t have control or adequate access to some of the agencies that are involved in the production, promotion and marketing of visual imagery. As this is the case, we have to create or set them up. Education and training is key and we have to develop people who understand the tool and the form – our voices should and must be heard. We as Africans need to talk about our resources and how they are being managed; we need to talk about our politics and leadership, about our culture and its preservation, about our society, and about living together in peace and harmony. We should groom voices to address these issues. Not just of any kind, but voices with quality messages relevant to the continent and the dispensation we are in, as well as for the future.
You work mostly across photography, painting and video. What informs your diversity and which media best fulfills your purpose?
(In a lighter mood)
I admire Marcel Duchamps. I like that he is the most elusive artist ever to have lived. I’m also an artist and don’t want to be boxed into a corner, style or form. There is freedom in art and one has the latitude to express one’s self. I want to express myself in whatever form I can develop. If I learn how to play a musical instrument now, I’d explore or use it. The most important thing is that one finds his God-given purpose in life and pursues it; my art is part of that journey… I’m still walking!
You are a founding member of both Nigerian photography groups, Blackbox and Invisible Borders/Trans-African Photographers. What role can these creative organisations play in developing photography in Nigeria and by extension, Africa?
These groups were set up to achieve different but closely related goals and objectives. The major ones are hinged on the need to share and develop individual and collective skills and experiences. Another important goal was to inform and educate the uninformed within the Nigerian photography sector. For Invisible Borders, it is more of telling the Nigerian/African story from the inside and from ground level, especially to those from the outside. When these groups were initiated, we didn’t have informal and indigenous platforms where people meet to engage in discussions or conversations on the medium, even though most of the key players now were already internationally oriented at that time because of their involvements in photography festivals, residencies, biennales and workshops outside of the country and continent.
So there was some kind of knowledge that was still latent and not properly or adequately harnessed. Today, the inaugural members of the two groups are established artists playing key roles in the form of training, promotion and production of visual imagery, both within and outside Nigeria. The Nlele, Photo Garage Lagos, FOTOPARTY Lagos, Lagos OPEN RANGE and the Alexander Academy in Badagary, are projects developed and initiated by some members of these groups. Photographers like Abraham Oghobase, Andrew Esiebo, Charles Okereke, Emeka Okereke and Uche James-Iroha are passionately involved in the development and training of young photographers in Nigeria and other African countries through collaborative projects with the World Press Photo and the Centre of Learning for Photography in Africa (CLPA). Most of the young artists have gone ahead to participate in various international photography exhibitions, festivals, residencies and workshops and so the gap is being bridged. The Nlele has a repertoire of photographers or alumni who are doing quite well in Nigeria, Africa and internationally; young photographers like Tunji Lana, Aderemi Adegbite, Ayo Akinwande, Adeola Olagunju, Kemi Akin- Nibosun, Rahima Gambo, Anthony Monday, Christopher Obuh Nelson just to mention a few on the long list of photographers who will dominate the photography scene in the coming years. A similar thing is going on in Johannesburg, Bamako, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda. The Market Photo Workshop has set a good precedent for an emerging informal art education platform like the Nlele that is now putting up infrastructure, equipment and funding mechanisms to engineer a renaissance in the art education in Nigeria, the region and Africa.
The Black Box Collective, Invisible Borders and the Depth of Field have also contributed rich resources to the development of photography in Nigeria. We cannot overemphasise the contemporary works of Kelechi Amadi-Obi, TY Bello, Ade Adekola, Adolphus Opara, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko and so on. The human resources are available to engage the new set of photographers in critical conversations and training. Like I mentioned earlier, art education is important and we as a people should embrace it even in the national educational curricula, to keep the cycle of knowledge production oiled and sustained. Sustainability will definitely translate to empowerment for the image producers because of the emerging visual image market and economy in Nigeria. It’s still not vibrant yet, but it is heading in that direction because the interest for art made in Africa is increasing and collectors, galleries and other institutions are looking in and acquiring quality works from the continent.
How can contemporary culture in Africa be explored using photography and film as art forms?
To fuel this, we need investment and participation from the private sector. The philanthropy of wealthy individuals will also play a huge role in this regard. Culture is most important to every nation or country. It can dramatically transform the perception of outsiders or foreigners about the kind of people we are, if we are able to harness the huge potential available to us. The Americans achieved it with Hollywood and we all know about cities and even inner communities in that nation without even going there. The movies and films did it for them. They have succeeded in selling America to the world using forms like film, music and even photography. Pick up a copy of National Geographic, Time or Ebony magazine then you will see what I mean. Now, social media has taken over and the entire world is now reachable in seconds.
Nollywood has made remarkable progress over the years. Even without the requisite funding to drive it. Nollywood is all over Africa and in some parts of Europe. The Nigerian culture and the predominant Pidgin English used in the productions are exported and infused into other cultures. From Amsterdam to London, Dubai, Atlanta, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Accra and so on, people now know the Nigerian social narrative. This is a good omen, but a closer look at what is obtained in the United States and some other developed countries reveals that intensity by which their culture migrates and is homogenised into ours, tells one how vital, creative and artistic forms like photography, video art, film and performance art can be in the development, propagation and exportation of African cultures into other cultural climes and spaces. The works of Victor Ehikhamenor, Jelili Atiku and Emeka Ogbor are worth mentioning; even though their individual practices are outside of the lens-based forms, they have successfully engaged their spaces by critically exploring and deciphering the different elements and strata of the Nigeria society. Through their works, they have tried to mirror or project contemporary Nigerian culture to the outside world. Adolphus Opara and George Osodi in their recent works have also investigated African tradition, spirituality and royalty. These are outstanding projects that show who we are, how far we have progressed and how these traditional and cultural elements have evolved over time.
But the real McCoy is knowledge. We need to know our history. We need to have information about us regarding where we are coming from, what happened to us and what is happening now in relation to our culture. This is where education and capacity building comes in. When you produce a crop of professionals who are equipped to work (in this present age and in the future) with the information, skills and other abilities, then the work becomes exciting. Recently, we have seen some quality production coming out of Nollywood; this is heart warming. I heard the movie 76 is almost a five-star piece that can compete with productions from Hollywood, though I’ve not had time to see it. This kind of quality can only be associated with knowledge and information about our culture and history, made possible through thorough research and study. Knowledge is a tool that we have to use well to balance the migration or intersection of other cultures that come into our spaces.
Please tell us about your recent exhibition at Tafeta in London, and what you achieved.
The exhibition went well. What Tafeta and I did was to push the ‘Plantation Boy’ series into the European market. It’s a new project and the approach is different. We need to break that skepticism about photography from the South. I don’t want to use the phrase African photography, it’s been over flogged and many times, misused and taken out of its real context. Anybody (I mean artists) can make quality works anywhere as long as there is a discernable context and relevance attached to them. However, I know people like the works and that they will soon go into private and public collections, as well as institutions.
You are one of the curators for the 2017 edition of That Art Fair. Can you tell me what your curatorial thrust is?
Yes, when Brendon Bell-Roberts approached me to join the team and to curate the photography and video art section of the Art Africa Fair, I had already started work on a new sociological and artistic concept called Afrokainosis. The objective of this concept is to subvert parochial perceptions about Africa and to provoke a rethink not just in the West where these notions and thoughts have become entrenched, but also among Africans. This concept will instigate or prompt scholarship and the development of new knowledge in various creative, artistic, literary and every other field or endeavour that thrives on knowledge and information, especially with Africa in mind. The essence is to develop and promote a concept that can be the rostrum for scholarly representations and the social, economic, political, cultural projection of Africa in a positive and good way. This is a redirection from the biased and fickle foreign media that it appears to have a score to settle, often portraying the continent out of context. Our story starts with us.
Having developed this concept and the name, which I formed from two words – Africa and Anakainosis, which is a Greek word for “renewing or changing qualitatively”, I shared the idea as a theme for the art fair. Fortunately, Brendon Bell-Roberts liked it, and we decided to build the theme of the art fair around the concept.
However, as stated in the Art Africa Fair open call, our approach is an attempt to transform vernacular African ideas into tangible expressions, to challenge stereotypical understandings, and to introduce, propagate and take responsibility for new representations about Africa, from Africa. Furthermore, the scope goes beyond finding new ways of visually representing Africa’s social, economic and political quagmire, to exploring the continent’s technological advancements, human rights, her environment and innovations that have effected positive change (with regards to digital advancements and evolution). We are therefore, accepting works related to this narrative.
October 12, 2021
October 07, 2021