In Conversation: Emeka Okereke and Emmanuel Iduma on their collaborative Residency at L'Appartment 22, Rabat, Morocco.
This is a conversation between Emeka and Emmanuel in the course of the residency.
Emmanuel Iduma: Let’s begin with the nature of our collaboration. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with thinks it’s promising. We were supposed to come to Rabat together. I got a visa, you didn’t. And now we’re working via Skype and email, conceptually. What’s the promise you think this collaboration holds?
Emeka Okereke: I agree it is promising, I think it allows for a different way of thinking of estrangement and obstructions to movement specifically through the relationship between presence and absence. In a poem I wrote, I spoke of absence as an accomplice to presence. In this context presence extends beyond physicality and becomes non-geographic. Roland Barthes said, “the photographer’s second sight is presence”. I very much agree with this. However what needs to be looked into is the form of that presence, or what coalesces into that presence.
EI: But it’s a tricky and problematic presence. And since you’re a photographer, you have to take photographs that are authenticated, in a way, by the place they were taken. Now we’re hoping that this authentication can happen in someplace other than Morocco, which is Africa’s doorway to Europe, and the hotbed of the migration crises.
EO: Exactly, because we hope to explore the idea of a parenthesis that becomes possible as a result of estrangement. We want to touch on the makings of this parenthesis with hopes of not being too prosaic but rather nuanced enough to evoke sensibilities, which would lead to open-ended conversations.
EI: I recall that we began to speak about parenthesis in relation to the people who are waiting, almost interminably, and desolately, for the opportunity to cross the sea. And we were interested in what happens in that time of waiting. How have you managed to take photographs based on this?
EO: What has become important for me is to evoke, through my images, this parenthetic space. It is the space that is mostly unaccounted for in the migrant narrative. Everyone talks of the outcome. The migrant story becomes headline news only when they have drowned in the sea or deported in gigantic numbers. But we hardly enter this space where all of these dramas play out before it becomes a media sensation.
The image “Under Construction,” which I made somewhere in Yaba, Mainland Lagos, speaks very much to this thinking. First of all, it is an effort to implicate my own body and presence in the narrative. It is a performative image in the sense that the image-maker is not exempted from the vulnerabilities and eventualities of the actual image. But beyond that, there is a space similar to this parenthetic space, which exists in the distance between the camera (and we know the history of the role of the camera as an oppressor’s tool) and the image. The process of making the image is a daunting repetition of movements back and forth the camera and the image. At a point it becomes heavy and exhausting and almost self-tormenting.
EI: In Tangier, for instance, you see the specific gravity of parenthesis and repetitive motions. As in other places like Ceuta, or Nador, for those fortunate to have made it across. People I met had tried once or twice to go across. Failing, they would be sent back to Tangier. I’ve always been reminded of John Berger’s statement, while thinking through these things, “Without a home everything was fragmentation.” I’m hoping that, in some way, and as an expression of solidarity, our work can underscore how lives can be fragmented by oppressive migratory policies, by obstruction to movement in general.
EO: Exactly, I think that the notion of solidarity is an important element. Basically this is what we are trying to do here – to enter this story by way of affirming our solidarity with the migrant narrative. There is no better way to do this than focus on the sensibilities evoked by this process of fragmentation.
Furthermore, solidarity in this context is tricky. One cannot pretend to understand the plight of the migrant if one does not share the same context and reality with the migrant, no matter how many times he or she listens to the story. But I would argue that solidarity becomes possible when by the virtue of listening to stories of migrant experiences, something of a profound feeling displaces the listener towards a new consciousness. A tangible consciousness capable of moving the listener to action, be it as direct activity or a sad passivity.
EI: You are right. I’m specifically seeking this feeling you describe as I write. I’m a writer, so that’s one thing I can do. It might be conceited to expect things to change soon. Here in Morocco, you realize that things are quite complicated. There are entire industries built on making the lives of migrants without value. In response, to at least do something, I am compelled to describe the encounters I’m having, to come to terms with the ways in which lives like mine are made worthless. This is not however, the same thing as accepting these circumstances.
EO: Very much so. We are not experts in anything. We are only here to make a conversation happen. The truth is that a lot can be resolved tangibly if people are having the right conversations rather than exploiting the narratives and making a lucrative industry out if it like you just pointed out, all in the guise of activism. However, given that your position as a writer, and also as the one present in Morocco where the specific gravity of the migrant experience is almost unbelievable, how do you see the tying together of your writings with the photographs I am making in Lagos? Do you think the link we are trying to make lends credence to the seriousness of these situations?
EI: As you said we’re not experts. Expertise suggests we have something to sell, or ideologies to peddle. I don’t think I’m expecting my writing to resolve your photographs, which could be the standard relation of text to images. I’ll prefer that your photographs releases some charge in my writing, and my writing releases some charge in your photographs. One way to respond to the link between Morocco-Nigeria is to point people to the trans-Sahara routes, established from pre-colonial times, connecting what’s today known as Northern Nigeria (which was an outpost of the Songhai Empire) with the Moroccan Sultanate. I think we’re re-inscribing those routes. That’s one. Two, the link should ideally be metaphorical. This is an addition to the multiple narratives about migration. Hopefully, it’s not considered as a point final.
Emeka Okereke is a Nigerian visual artist and writer. He is the Founder and Artistic Director of Invisible Borders : The Trans- African Project.
Emmanuel Iduma, born and raised in Nigeria, is a writer of fiction andart criticism, and an organizer of art projects.