A Trans-African Worldspace by Emmanuel Iduma
What happens when traveling artists take up the customary and habitual as a space for intervention? A trans-African world emerges. Trans, a going-across, a traversal, also suggests movement, transience, and a space-time continuum. The artists who inhabit this continuum take up temporary residence in migrant routes and in the cities and towns where fellow Africans take up permanent residence. While traveling the artists interact as intimate strangers. They befriend their hosts, eat whatever is offered, attend dance parties, and become familiar with quotidian occurrences. Out of this abrupt familiarity emerge images, essays, and films.
Since 2009, Invisible Borders has organized road trips across African cities and borders, and recently European cities. Taking off from Lagos, their destinations have included: Bamako, Dakar, Addis Ababa, Libreville, and Sarajevo. The journey has taken them through cities and towns known only to the wayfarer and vagrant—Diema, Ekok, Mamfe, Ferkessedougou, Bitam, Maiduguri, Kousseri, Gamboru-Ngala, Kidira, Ekok, Kayes, for instance—and through ordeals faced by illegal migrants. An “invisible border” has not, in the course of the project, suggested the absence of borders, bureaucratic bottlenecks, or corrupt officials. But it has suggested an experiment in the blurring of border-lines through movement: the rolling of tyres, the trudging of feet, the body of artists’ in constant motion.
Artists and writers who have traveled as part of the project did not insist on showing everyday spaces—like markets, streets, restaurants, roads, and malls—as places in need of repair or development. But as places where life occurs without judgment, with mirth, theatricality, and beauty.
Imagine digging through mud that reaches up to your ankle, sleeping in mud-coated feet and dress, joined by the residents of a border town in Cameroon, uncertain of tomorrow. Imagine being arrested by policemen in N’djamena for taking photographs in the Grand Marche, spending six hours without knowing your fate. Imagine crossing through Gamboru-Ngala, a town in the wake of a Boko Haram attack. Imagine stopping in the middle of the night to realize bandits on an Ethiopian highway have placed a roadblock in front of your car.
Is there any value in reflecting on habitual occurrences? These occurrences, some might argue, is the result of a redoubtable colonial legacy, the bustling attempts at survival in chaotic metropolises, or perhaps the characteristic underdevelopment that gives Africa its peculiar narrative. The work of Invisible Borders since inception has appropriated ordinariness quite differently. Artists and writers who have traveled as part of the project did not insist on showing everyday spaces—like markets, streets, restaurants, roads, and malls—as places in need of repair or development. But as places where life occurs without judgment, with mirth, theatricality, and beauty. This approach has not lessened the severity of the continent’s contradictions. It has proposed a subtler, more graceful look.
A Trans-African Worldspace is incepted at the moment the experience of travel across African borders intersects with an idiosyncratic interpretation of it. Artists who have been invited to participate in the road trips are not inclined to work according to fixed worldviews and propaganda; if there is any manifesto it is one defined by their curiosities and proclivities. Hence the Worldspace is formed by the immediacy with which the traveling artists realize that the diversity of the continent is like a sea of endless encounters, productive happenstances, and valuable collaborations.
In the late Ray Daniels Okeugo’s photographs, for instance, the response is to consider the humorous balance of things and people as only an entertained visitor would. If Okeugo is mirthful, the photographs of Emeka Okereke—the group’s founder—show a balance in fleeting moments, as though when things whirl apart they are inherently stationary. And in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Okereke’s collaboration with Emmanuel Iduma show how self-absorption can be a thing of value, a way for a stranger to appear intimate. Other idiosyncratic interpretations are offered: the portraits by Jumoke Sanwo and Jide Odukoya close up gaps between visitor and resident, affirming the individuality of Nigerians in the African diaspora and the peculiarity of each features. Tom Saater, a documentary photographer, records, as if without pause, his disquietude in the controversial custom of bullfights in Malaga; but Ala Kheir is slower, looking at abstractions in unfinished buildings and evidences of the passage of time in Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
In the first room, where a collage of photographs faces an continuous loop of footage of roads traversed, the road trip is presented as a work-of-process, an interminable voyage. The second room contains several collection of individual artists’ work, including videos and images—the outcome of work and thinking processes. No distinction, hence, is made between the value of images showing the work-process and images showing the outcome; they are complementary. The artist’s presence on the road is as important as the work that commences from that presence. Several pieces of writing are interspersed within the slides, negotiating with the images. One could imagine the texts as shadows, trailing the visual work, subtly affirming it.