Emeka Udemba on Shaping Future Cultural Perspectives
Born in 1968, Emeka Udemba is a mixed media artist who lives and works between Lagos, Nigeria, and Freiburg, Germany. Udemba sees different mediums not only as independent but also as complementary forms of expression, and his works primarily deal with communication and human experience in the social and political sphere. They generally hinge on the intersection of cultural knowledge, crossing fluidly from installations to video, performances, photography, drawings, and paintings. Udemba has won numerous grants, prizes, and residencies in Africa and Europe. Notable exhibitions and awards include recent projects at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, France, a project grant with the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, and a project grant of the Siftungskunstfonds in Germany. In this interview with Omenka, he talks about the Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Art (MMMoCA), experimental art in Nigeria, and the integration of different art forms in his work.
Your work cuts across a variety of artistic media, spanning drawing, painting, photography, installation, and video. How do you combine these different elements in your practice?
I have always been drawn to the idea of integrating different art forms to achieve the “total experience,” a “Gesamtkunstwerk.” This idea, first proposed by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, proposes a complete integration of the arts through synthesis. A general rule for me is that the end determines the medium. Consequently, I am very open to the choice of medium based on the particular project, concept, theme, and idea that I am engaged with. It is a new challenge and struggle every time with oneself. The aim is both to maximize the creative input and also hopefully facilitate a wholesome experience, interaction, or participation of the viewer/public. An example is World White Walls, my installation at the 2002 Dakar Biennale. The work explored and addressed issues of migration and identity politics. The audiences were invited to participate and interact physically with the work by going through the two parallel passages, one planted with roses, the other with metal cuts, nails, toilet covers, and other diverse discarded objects. The passage with the roses had an inscription, “US and EU Citizens”; the other passage had the inscription “Others.” In the installation, the visitor was involved in both a visual and an immersive experience.
In 2018, your initiative Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Art (MMMoCA) made a trip to the Dak’Art Biennale along with six artists who created work on the road to be presented at the biennale. Kindly tell us a bit about MMMoCA, the trip to Dak’Art, and the work produced?
One of the major challenges facing contemporary art, especially in Africa today, are the issues of context, representation, presentation, and documentation. The question of how we can adapt the way we show and interact with contemporary art to suit our local environment, and in so doing make culture more accessible to the public in perceived remote locations or “non-cultural” spaces, is pertinent. To what extent is a museum of contemporary art capable of interrogating real issues that affect us? How do we engage the public in a more participatory and collaborative way as part of the creative process? If museums are aimed at creating “national mythologies,” as documented in The Art of Art History by Donald Preziosi, what kind of museum of contemporary art should we have in Nigeria today?
Situated within these exploratory inquiries is the Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Art (MMMoCA) Nigeria. Conceived as a museum consisting of various modules on wheels, it is hinged on reinventing space while simultaneously preserving an icon of the Lagos urban transportation heritage—the molue bus. With MMMoCA, which I initiated in 2014 in collaboration with Goethe Institut Nigeria, contemporary art is made a daily experience integrated within the community and empowering creative minds in the broadest sense. According to the French writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, the mobility of artist and audience has stimulated new models for political and cultural exchange and participation. The second edition of MMMoCA mobile residency to the Dak`Art Biennale in 2018 could be seen as another important step towards “shaping future cultural perspectives” and collaboration with artists from the West Africa sub-region. The aim was to create “activity participatory spaces” from Lagos to Dakar. These activity participatory spaces are designed to create situations where participating artists generate interventions that directly interact with the public. The project provided a backdrop to the shifts in public spaces as tools of social research and transformation, blurring the boundaries between everyday life, urbanism, contemporary art, and activism. Six artists, Souleymane Konate (Ivory Coast), Gabriel Goller (Germany), Ray Claver Agbo (Ghana), Bay Dam (Senegal), Monsuru Alashe (Nigeria), and Yamferlinos (Benin) were invited to participate in the project. The six-week travel residency with the mobile museum gave participating artists the opportunity to interact with new audiences and shape mutual exchange through open and inclusive practices.
The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), with the goal of promoting the economic and social integration of West Africa, has at its core aim the free movement of goods and people from its 15 member countries. The reality behind these celebrated goals and the image of this regional bloc is what some of the artists interrogated. In exposing the realities of travelling across the borders from Lagos through Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal, contemporary art became an emergency as the artists navigated through issues of corruption, underdevelopment, climate change, migration, disorderliness, and misconceptions in various communities in direct interactions, and sometimes collaboration, with the public. The ensuing encounters were met with a lot of curiosity and excitement in the various communities along the route to and from Dakar. We also had presentations/talks by participating artists at Goethe Institut stations in Lome, Accra, Abidjan, Bamako, Dakar, and Lagos. These exchanges offered spaces for engaging the public on their encounters and works realised during this mobile residency program.
Bay Dam, the artist from Senegal, in collaboration with Souleymane Konate from Ivory Coast, explored the juxtaposition of digital and traditional media in paintings. These paintings with sensors generate sound and movement of some images when touched on the surface. This work seemed to blur the boundaries between the real and the virtual. Monsuru Alashe developed a series of photographs that traced people’s footprints. Alashe’s images interrogated the unfortunate trend of young Africans risking their lives traveling through the desert in their quest to migrate to Europe. Gabriel Goller conducted a series of photography/printing experiments and also facilitated drawing workshops for kids in various communities. These workshops opened a whole new world for most of these kids, who were probably coming in contact with this kind of creative interaction and exchange for the first time in their lives. The artist Yamferlinos generated a series of daily drawings as a way of documenting memories of his daily encounters throughout the travel project. Ray Claver Agbo developed a series of performances and installations that addressed issues of systemic corruption, ecology, agriculture, and how “the soil can set Africa free.”
You live and work between Lagos, Nigeria, and Freiburg, Germany. How have these different places and cultures influenced your work?
Living and working between Lagos and Freiburg has been interesting, creatively rewarding, but has also come with challenges. I don’t feel torn between these two distinct spaces; rather, I embrace them. Most times it is about navigating in-between spaces, between the ancestral and the adopted space, between being an insider and also an outsider. One is confronted with questions of authenticity and the general dichotomies that non-Western artists living between spaces are being framed with. To put it more bluntly, it is sometimes about being hyper-visible, as theorised by Franz Fanon, due to the “sin of pigmentation.” As a consequence, over the years, my work has been situated around various issues challenging stereotypes, appropriating cultural icons, and navigating notions of hybridity, identity, migration, and location. This is why my work is situated anywhere and everywhere.
Through the representation of my experiences, my work echoes the lives of others. I enjoy putting places and practices into dialogue. Place and identity are inextricably bound to one another. Exploring the relationship between place and identity deepens our understanding of identity formation and the role of place in social and psychological development. The bonds between place and identity can influence social formations, cultural practices, and political actions. For me, the preoccupation with place is helpful in order to move a body of work in a new direction. I love exploring multiple ways in which place and identity intertwine, and the varied stakes in understanding them.
What progress do you think has been made in terms of the production and appreciation of experimental forms of art, like video and installation, in Nigeria?
I can still remember the challenges that I went through and the feedback I got during my 2002 solo exhibition at Didi Museum and at the National Museum in Lagos, which included a video installation. How do you show a work on video when there is no electricity to power the monitors and video players? Getting an electric generator is an option, but running it throughout the duration of the exhibition is quite expensive. So on a logistic level, showing a video work in Nigeria is challenging. We simply need better structures, on a technical level, to support such an art form. For artists and the public, the consciousness of video or installation as an art form is still limited. However, there are a number of artists and video collectives like the Video Art Network, Lagos, who are striving to bring video art into public consciousness in Nigeria. The last decade has actually witnessed a huge transformation in the production and appreciation of experimental forms of art in Nigeria. This is due to the advent of independent art spaces that are not necessarily profit-driven. An example is the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), a legacy of Bisi Silva, Project Space Lagos, the Arthouse, MOCA Lagos, and many others. These contemporary art centres are providing alternative platforms for art through programmes that incorporate experimental art forms, discourse, and artist residencies.
You incorporate newspaper cut-outs in most of your paintings. What is the significance of this?
We live in a world where huge quantities of information material are being produced and put at the mercy of whoever might wish to appropriate them for insertion into different contexts. The philosopher and art historian Gottfried Böhm uses the “iconic turn” to describe the paradigm shift and phenomenon whereby images have gradually taken over from words as the vehicle for flexible and universal communication. He argued for the need for a “science of images” to undertake a painstaking interdisciplinary investigation of the function of the image as a medium of information. The printed “cut-outs” (or “add-ons”) that you allude to in my painting are situated in a critical analysis of the concept of reality, information, and the possibility of representation. They speak to the idea of excavation and how destruction and reconstruction of reality is a valid aesthetic strategy.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share?
Among several projects I am working on at the moment is a library art project. This is part of my ongoing work consciously questioning contemporary city space. Human behavioural patterns provide information about the structure of cities. The library art project would explore aesthetic qualities of imagination through reading in unexpected locations. Working in collaboration with artists/illustrators, writers, designers, collaborating partners, and others interested in critical knowledge production, “reading hotspots” will be installed in selected locations in various communities in Lagos. The aim is to create interruptive sites and spaces of tranquillity, imagination, and self-reflection in one of the most stressful cities in the world.
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