A Decolonial Option: On the forthcoming Lagos—Maputo 2018 Road-trip
"After seven editions of the Trans-African Road Trip, this idea has come a long way, notably with much focus on the role of the body, the black, African body, as an active-thinking entity – with personal intuition, memory, history, language, appearance, and not least of all, inscribed violence – in the negotiation, or better still, disruption of notions of space, time and imposed cartographies." Here Yinka Elujoba is in Conversation with Emeka Okereke on the forthcoming Lagos to Maputo 2018 Road-trip.
Yinka Elujoba: As a writer—and I suppose this is true for most artists working with different mediums—some form of clarity has always been the most important thing before embarking on any endeavor. Sometimes I go over the concept note for the Lagos Maputo road trip with the aim of arguing within myself why this road trip is important. The premise, of course, is infallible: there is now more than ever an irrepressible need for a trans-African retracing beyond the form of mere historical lexicons to, if you like, the need for thinking moving bodies implicating themselves in this retracing. For you what is the premise for this road trip?
Emeka Okereke: Indeed, clarity is not reducible to writers or the medium of writing. If anything, it is mostly linked to thoughts – clarity of thoughts. And it is on this premise that I would like to begin this reflection. The Invisible Borders Trans-African project takes as a departure point, the idea of proactive thinking as the main foothold of Trans-Africanism. This much I have expounded through one of my essays – Transcending “Africa” – which, to a large extent, is a manifesto about Trans-Africanism. After seven editions of the Trans-African Road Trip, this idea has come a long way, notably with much focus on the role of the body, the black, African body, as an active-thinking entity – with personal intuition, memory, history, language, appearance, and not least of all, inscribed violence – in the negotiation, or better still, disruption of notions of space, time and imposed cartographies. To think, therefore, is to process or journey through these various possessions of the body, in no particular order, oftentimes arriving at a more precarious notion of self. This point of precariousness is a necessary point in the process of re-imagining what one has been named, but most significantly, in encountering what I call the impossible self.
The Lagos – Maputo trajectory, besides being a historical routes of human migrations in Africa, is also fraught with tensions, stories of conflicts, dispersals and, consequently, violence. The reflections by the artists and subsequently, works precipitating from that will draw largely from the experiential knowledge recorded and processed by bodies as they make everyday encounters while on the move. However, I must clarify here that the body acts mainly as a conduit or, if you may, an archive of experiences whose foremost form is the intuition from which other forms become more coarse and material.
YE: A phrase that continues to stand out for me in the concept note is the idea of volatile negotiations between the past and the present. Volatility already suggests a rapid and unpredictable change. I like the idea of a negotiation too. I stand with the idea of a negotiation because of how powerfully radical it is in contrast with the word transaction even though both words might play in each other’s spaces. A negotiation also suggests that there has to be some proposition, some realization and eventually, some actualization. Is there a certain change you envisage in how African history is perceived or engaged after this road trip?
EO: Much of what is known of African history today – that is, accessible history – is one told from an anthropological point of view, always at the limit of Western hegemony. The 21 century, I would say, ushered in a new era which, in turn, is an outpouring of the transformatory and revolutionary tendencies of late 1950s to 70s. The work of Invisible Borders is first and foremost a proposal, or in Walter D. Mignolo’s words, a decolonial option. It joins in the many efforts by Africans of the 21st century, in not refuting or discarding known history, but in re-imagining it. We do this by projecting ourselves (again, I return to the body and all its possessions) unto this history, with hopes of “disturbing the image”. We do not want to tell people what to think (much the same way as we are not telling Africa’s stories, but being a story or stories), we want to contest or refute the impossibility of thinking. Again, the premise here is that thinking is a proactive action.
How does this translate to contemporary Africa and how African history is perceived? Let’s begin with the idea of thinking as introspection. That is, doing away with the habit of putting the problem outside ourselves. This kind of thinking always has at its heels the questions: how am I implicated? What is my position(ing)? Thus we engage and consume knowledge as empowerment rather than entertainment. We hope – that the works produced after this project will allow for this kind of thinking – thinking as introspection.
YE: I am always in solidarity with any philosophy that furthers the idea of pluriversality. To quote Simon Njami in his essay The Seeing Power, “We were wrong to envisage civilization as something uniform and univocal, built around a dominant model.” I have always considered everything I write as a form of negotiation—here’s that word again. I’m talking here about negotiation for a space that allows for another way of seeing whatever I’m considering. Ultimately, beyond all revolutionary intents, I think that every artistic endeavor gets to this notion. What do you think of the kind of work produced by Invisible Borders in relation to pluriversality?
EO: This is indeed important. This space for negotiation for a possible pluriversality. However, it is only a start. It is important to understand that it does not stop at negotiation in the sense of finding one’s own space. The world we live in is a grand design of Western hegemony, a.k.a modernity – with all its rhetorics, its lies, its coloniality. Thus we are all caught in that coloniality, that vortex, or force field of coloniality. In the 21st century, it will not be enough to find or negotiate one’s own space within that “colonial matrix of power”. One must also ask if one is not reproducing coloniality even with the good intentions of finding “new” positions or new strategies of selfhood and ownership. However marginalised one may be, we must think first in terms of decoloniality. We must uphold, and continue to nurture our inherent “moral concept of the impossible” as John Berger puts it. Here, I would allude to the concept of epistemic disobedience – a kind of defiance that, in the long run, does not contend with Western hegemony but rather renders it one of the options in a more polycentric world.
One way to go about this – which in many ways is the premise for the Invisible Borders project – is to engage in the re-imagination of human history. Nothing has been erased by Western hegemony. They have merely been negated – at most buried. So rather than seek to “climb” up the ladder of the mainstream (nothing wrong with this beyond the question of misplaced priority), we ought to dig, dig deep for our history trampled and buried under our feet. Furthermore, I believe that the biggest problem of the world is not our differences or how different we look, but rather the deplorable fact that human relationship is placed at the service of capital. Any relevant work in the 21st century must have as its foundation the steadfast aim of reversing this anomaly. We believe this is the case with the work we are doing with Invisible Borders.
YE: In the world of photography there have been a lot of conversations about what happens in front of and behind the camera. As a writer interested in writing about images, I am always thinking of myself as standing beside the camera. I say this because much of the work of Invisible Borders—beyond the crystallized materials in form of images, film and essays—happens in the process itself. And now that I think about it, we’ve always talked about how the process is the work. What has been deliberately considered in the process to be employed in the Lagos Maputo road trip and why?
EO: We have always said that the works – images, writings, films – produced during the Invisible Borders road trip are precipitates of lived experiences accrued through remarkable encounters on and with the road. The word precipitate here is deliberate. It helps to conjure the order of the complementary association between process and outcome. The artists do not go into the road trip to tell stories as such, but to become stories, and to intersect with stories. If, like I said earlier on, thinking is introspection, then it follows that the artist is not merely observing, analysing and reporting, but questioning. It is here that the invisible borders becomes the distance between the artist’s preconceived notion and freshly acquired perception. How the artist navigates this distance – with all the inscribed tensions disturbing the singular image of self – is what the work produced represents.
In this case, the artist will be aware, for instance, that in relation to photography, the camera is also a tool that fixes the gaze (a singular image) as much as it is most known for offering unconventional, plural perspective. The artist must ask and find his or her positioning with regards to this contradiction. This is the reason why the Invisible Borders project is multidisciplinary, involving photography, writing, film, performance, and research-based work.
For the Lagos – Maputo road trip, we are looking to focus our activities on the encounters with the everyday person along our route. We will, for the first time, spend ample time at border towns with the aim of meeting and engaging with those whose everyday activities and lives animate borders. How are these borders reinforced or undermined by the presencing of these lives? What are the nuances made possible by the precariousness of their realities?
Beyond creating works on the go, there will be moments of sharing in the way of workshops, presentations, makeshift exhibitions and public space interventions. It is hoped that all of this will come together to enrich and enliven the process of encounters from which the artists will draw not only intellectual knowledge, but heartfelt, emotional experiences for their work.
YE: Since 2009 Invisible Borders has organized road trips across Africa and there was even a transcontinental one in 2014. In all of these road trips, the road has always situated itself as a sort of metaphorical object for seeing both into the future and as hindsight. I have considered—in writing actually—the idea of the world as a single, long, open road. Yet, what I think about now in relation to this forthcoming trip is how being on the road bridges—or maybe even widens—the gap between preconceived notions and what is closer to reality, which we’ve talked a lot about and referred to as freshly acquired perception. What relationship have you seen artists have with the road in past road trips? What do you think will be the role of the road in this forthcoming trip?
EO: The road, but also the van in which the artists travel, in the course of the road trip, becomes a space where the tension between the subjective and the collective plays out. The premise of the project, besides those already mentioned, is to look at how to translate communal experiences into subjective truths. In the past road trips, this has not been very easy. This is a project that, in all facets, infringes on a well preserved-notion of self. The immediate reaction is likely to be one of self-preservation. From this, we have seen situation where this preserved subjectivity becomes a threat to the collective in the project. Thus the greatest challenge for the artists is not the external borders or experiences, but those within – within one’s wall of self.
Perhaps it is better to understand this as asking the question: to what extent am I willing to implicate my “self” in the multifaceted context of the collective? To what extent am I willing to allow these lives enter mine? Either way it is tumultuous: preserving a notion of self and giving only your body to the trip or giving your body and self to the road, fraught with thistles of inconsistencies. There is nothing in this project that suggests safe conduct as a viable means of circumvention.
For the forthcoming road trip, this will not be any different.
Cover image: “La Nouvelle Expression, Doulala, Cameroon” by Emeka-Okereke, Invisible Borders, 2012