Invisible Borders: Emeka Okereke in conversation with Emmanuel Iduma

From Invisible Borders 

A conversation between Emeka Okereke, founder and Artistic Director of Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organization, and Emmanuel Iduma, Nigerian author and writer. The conversation took place in Libreville, Gabon where Okereke and Iduma are participating in a road trip. The conversation takes into focus the work of the Organization since 2009, when it was founded until now, considering its practice and ideology, and touches on African modernity, public art, borders, history and so forth. 

Emeka Okereke, first from left, and the rest of the 2012 Invisible Borders participants with mud workers at Ekok, Cross River State.

Emmanuel Iduma: This conversation is kind of a conversational anthology of all we’ve talked about in the last 3 weeks, or so, while on this trip and even before. So, the first thing I’d like us to talk about is what you think have changed practically and even ideologically since Invisible Borders was founded in 2009.

Emeka Okereke: A lot has changed. It’s been 4 years, 4 editions. And we’ve come a long way both in terms of organizing the project and the concept of the project, what it entails. For example, we began with the very basic idea of a bunch of artists coming together, getting into a van and travelling by road as opposed to going by air. Since there was no sea so to speak dividing the countries in Africa, why couldn’t we travel by road? And then we named the project Invisible Borders. As time went on we realized that as photographers’ people would always ask us what exactly and how do you intend on making borders invisible? And that’s a question we’ve been trying to answer from 2009 until now.

In answering that question, the project evolved from merely photographers to having writers, art historians, filmmakers. In terms of the concept, we realized that there are different layers —whichever angle you think of it, it’s an interesting project. For the fact that what we are doing is recording our stories, which would become history tomorrow, and also the way we go about it. There’s also that aspect of adventure. But it’s only so because travelling by road today is not something common. It’s also like that because it’s a time when aviation is having a foothold in Africa and we are saying we want to travel by road. You realize it’s not about the means of travelling but what it brings to the project. So, the idea of invisible borders is travelling by road and discovering mile by mile the continent of Africa and also the people.

There’s something about travelling through these places, and even the names of the places we come across that you’ve never heard about in the countries that we know, like Cameroon. you’ve never really heard of Mamfe, Ekok, Ebolowa, Minkok….all these places that became landmarks to the project. I’m not talking about the ones that we passed by that we didn’t even pay attention to, those ones that now came to play a very important role in the project, besides Douala and Yaounde that everyone knows. Even if it’s just for the fact that we had to be in these places or somehow crossed our way in terms of having a brush with it from a distance, it is important, these are the little things. And then, the road trip has taken different layers.

Iduma: That’s why I talked about it first of all as the ideological changes that has happened since 2009 and then secondly the practical changes. The practical changes, you have non-Nigerians now, you’re now travelling with your own van, you’re not just going within ECOWAS again, you’re going outside the regions that you’re familiar with. And then ideologically, one of the things we’ve always talked about has been the slippery nature of the concept invisible borders. Definitely, if there’s any change that has happened ideologically, it’s even the permeability, the fragility of the concept. And so those are the kind of things that I know you’d be thinking of in relation to the changes that has occurred since 2009. I don’t know if I’m right?

Okereke: Sure. Of course.

Iduma: Now, you know, when you were talking about these landmarks that we came across, literarily tumbling upon them, (for instance stopping in Minkok we met this mess of a market) I easily remembered what Aly Diallo says that Africa’s specialty is in dealing with the everyday. Although he was sarcastic in his expression, basically saying that innovation is not considered as a tool for development [in Africa], what caught my attention was ‘Africa’s specialty is in dealing with the everyday.’ And it’s quite funny that what we’re trying to do is record everyday reality, everyday nuances and everyday lifestyles of people we come across. Does this resonate with the idea you have about what Invisible Borders is doing?

Okereke: Yes, of course. The best way I put it is that, first of all, we’ve come to realize that the project by visual artists, photographers, writers, filmmakers, is actually a performance in a public space within real time. I began to see the whole project as a performance where our space is that stretch of space from Lagos to Libreville, where we are now. That’s our space, and that’s public space, and the performance is happening every minute we’re travelling, be it travelling at night when it’s raining and everyone is sleeping or dozing off in the van, or being caught in the mud. And it’s happening everyday in people’s everyday reality which is not our everyday reality. Which is not our everyday life because of course we left everything we’re doing back home to embark on this trip.

But it’s so interesting that in every experience we have on the road, we’re actually encouraged not only by our resolve to be together and continue the road trip, but seeing that all these things we’re calling difficulties are actually what is happening in other people’s everyday life. For example, you get to a place that the only food you can eat is the food you don’t know. Several times I’ve told myself that if people who live here are eating this every day, how come I cannot survive, how come I can’t eat this food? When i think about that, [immediately] i jump into the food. Because I know I don’t have any other alternative. I’d be hungry, it will affect what we’re doing and I realize that all I needed was to dismiss that thought that because I don’t know this, it’s going to kill me. But then I dismiss that and I identify with the reality of those around me, because they’re human beings like myself. And there’s something that brings to me personally, because I know that when I go back to where I live, I eat good food, I fly by air from Lagos to Amsterdam and New York or wherever.

But at the same time, being in the mud with some guys who actually dig the mud every single day all their lives doesn’t take anything from me, it actually adds, gives me the experience of seeing things differently. And even led me to think that those people who think they’re in a certain way, they don’t need certain things, they drive a certain car, they sleep in a certain room, on a certain bed, that when it comes to a situation when they can’t have all of that, why is it that they see it as a subtraction other than an addition? Because it really doesn’t take anything from their taste, especially when they know that it’s only a parenthesis…

Iduma: ….I mean they’d return to their lives as it was….

Okereke: ….exactly, it doesn’t take away anything. I mean, it gives you the opportunity to feel. for me, the only way I can actually think that way is that I’m seeing Henry who was digging the mud, I see that he’s stepping into the mud and he’s not dead and he is a human being like me. And there’s a sort of modesty to that, the fact that we’re fiction in this people’s reality. For me, this is what pushes us forward. Of course, yes, we are documenting everyday reality of people through ourselves, through putting ourselves in the situation.

Iduma: What comes to my mind, which is because we started with the idea of how we’re being enmeshed in the everyday reality of others, is the idea of making historical statements. I’m asking myself how we can encounter everyday as it is and yet still make historical statements. Because you know that one of the challenges  I shared this with you last year — is that I want to go beyond reporting what we see, just the things we see — and we spend little time in places. So, how do we encounter everyday and yet confer on it some meaningful historical perspective?

Okereke: The way I see this business of development and progress in Africa is that we must always be true to our own reality and not see it as a shortcoming but strength in itself. And in the 21st Century when we talk about not seeking validation for what you do, it means that you’re beginning to scrutinize those things that are your reality and extract from it those things that could be your strength. One thing about development in Africa is that it’s a pity that we already have a (role) model, in the name of the west. People say there’s nothing an African wants to do that has not been done, but that’s because you are looking at it from that standpoint and we have all these analysts trying to analyze Africa from where they’re sitting in Europe or in the West, and that’s where they make a mistake.

That’s why we’re doing this, because we want to analyze Africa but not from that angle. We don’t want to call negative everything we have as strength. Now, when Aly Diallo says we’re hinged on the everyday and not hinged on the future, I consider that if you look at it from that angle then it feels like it’s a weakness but the question now is that how can we be on everyday, be spontenous, improvise and yet have a structure and a way of preserving this so that it becomes our history tomorrow.

And this is our struggle in Invisible Borders. As you know, we’re always thinking of how to structure this spontaneity, this energy flying here and there, our free-styling, what I call a vernacular art production. At the backend, how do we present it to people so that it doesn’t look like we’re not structured? So we’ve been having categories in the blog, and then we’re asking the artists to go and work, do their thing. At the backend we’re trying to structure it for them in a way that it would be preserved, so that tomorrow, people would analyze this work would have a pattern for which it was analyzed even though it was more or less spontaneous. So this is what I think — that we should always look for a way to structure things but should not in any way try to compromise the fact that we’re masters of improvisation.

Iduma: This brings to mind how fact meets reflection. I’m kind of a spontaneous introspective person, I think on the go, I imagine on the go, which is what this journey is about. On one hand, you can focus on the stress of travelling. Travelling can be an act in itself, because definitely you’re travelling. This is just like an artistic ideal — why would artists come together in a bus and say they’re travelling by road across africa. It might seem not to have a tangible worth in its own self. That’s how people might look at it — what are these guys doing exactly? For us, it’s more than that. It’s that we’re encountering all these spaces that exist as they are and as we’re entering into their spaces we’re trying to record what we see and yet think about what we’re recording…

Okereke: ….and it is more so because of the idea of getting out of our own spaces and doing this on the road. You have to realize that it is an art residency in movement, it is an art school in movement, because you have young photographers who are also here to learn and you see how they develop. You also realize that one of our strong concepts is that if you don’t go you don’t know. We never report on something we didn’t experience. But then how can you report on something and say what it represents, except you use it as a metaphor? So the reflection aspect of our project is that which places everything into symbols and metaphors to represent something much broader. And to some extent global. So we have this experience and we think about it back and forth as it relates to the history that we know about Africa, and where’s its taking us to in the future. It’s not just enough to come to Calabar, you go to the slave museum, and you say we’re in the slave history museum. no. you begin to reflect about that. What is the position of this in history, and what is the position of this in the future of Africa? Knowing that we’re actually at a strategic point — everyone now working in Invisible Borders and everyone living today is in a strategic point in the history of the world and for Africa it is more so because we are the forerunners of the 21st century. We are the ones who’ll decide what Africa would be at the end of the century. It is important that we make reference to history but much more think about where this is going to for us, for the future. And that is where that reflection comes in. But for the fact that we always want to be true, to what we say, facts must always be there.

Iduma: Yeah, because necessarily, although people might disagree, fact is incidental to truth, fact as in what is seen, what is evident. What you come across on the surface level can be equated with some form of truthfulness.

The other thing I wanted us to touch on is the fact of having different forms being represented on this platform. You have predominantly photographers, visual artists and then you have the literary form being represented. What kind of richness, broad-mindedness, open-endedness do you think this brings to the project? Is there a form of intersection between all these forms coming together to work out the definition of what Africa is today and what all these places we’re travelling through actually means?

Okereke: The guiding element in bringing these disciplines together to make up invisible borders is the ability of each of this medium to become a document. To record. And let’s not make any mistake about it, what we’re doing in Invisible Borders today, we want it to be a reference point in the next 10-20 years, it’s going to be an archive, a deep reflection by a group of artists, by this organization on what this space called Africa really means. So, photography, writing, filmmaking tends towards documentation in a way, and this is also preserving history. In that sense I think they all come together to reinforce and become the strength of what we do. Now, the aspect of creativity is something else. Even creativity is being recorded, as well, because of the different mediums. It’s already good that these are artists and not mere reporters and that’s like a plus. But the first thing is that we are documenting, that is the basic. We are documenting and anybody who wants to understand the role his work will play in invisible borders will have to begin there.

Iduma: One of the startling things for me, being in Invisible Borders, is that when you have all these forms and disciplines intersecting in one residency space, you automatically have a combined effort in honestly representing human experience. Which is why, for instance, I’m also interested beyond just writing fiction in also beginning to look at plays for the stage. Because all that it boils down to is not really about the medium, which is the mistake that we must not make even if you term yourself a photographer or a filmmaker. It’s just the same thing Shahidul Alam says that it’s really not about being a photographer and having a camera in your hands but first of all, what do you see? First of all what aches you as a person, as an artist, and if what aches is trying to be true to a modern African experience, to contemporary life in Africa, then it transcends automatically the borders of being a photographer, being a filmmaker, being a writer, being a whatnot….

Okereke… it automatically transcends that. And that is why in the future we’re going to have even weird mixtures of participants. It might even go beyond artists and include politicians. Because it’s never really about the medium. Okay, let’s keep it within where it is, artists doing this. You realize that the medium is only a way to capture different layers of this story. Like you once mentioned in the blog, the places we’re visiting, we might not get to visit them again. And photography can only [record] to an extent. We have 10 people travelling every year, why must they all be photographers? We have 10 people travelling, why must they all be Nigerians? you see? We have all these means of doing this. It will be a pity to limit this to photographers, writers. We chose the three mediums because this is also the form we’re giving to the outcome of what we’re doing. You have the writers and filmmakers and also the Art Historian trying to put what we’re doing within a historical context. When you say historical it doesn’t necessarily refer to the past but also to the future…

Iduma: I’m keenly interested in reimagining history. Every time I say to myself I want to be engaged in that activity of reimagination, I feel it’s a ‘back to the future’ thing. It’s like you have that element of the past but you also have the element of the future, like sci-fi in some sense. It’s like that surreal engagement with what would be considered as what was. In future, what we’re doing would be considered as what was. But now we can actually go to the future now and imagine that people are considering this as what was. So you go to the future to see what will be considered as the past….

Okereke: …definitely.

Iduma: …it’s just like a travel in time. Which is one of the outlooks I think we should be having. Travelling through time…

Okereke: …exactly.

Iduma: Let’s talk about the idea of vernacular art as it relates to performance in public space. Something I know that has been your concern is how we can deconstruct the complications of the art world. The complications of how art should be made, what is considered high art. And yet one of the things we’ve been trying to do is trying to bring art into the public space, into the everyday reality. It’s just like when you talk of having a show on 3rd Mainland Bridge, in Lagos, and they see what would ordinarily be hidden in the gallery or exhibition space. So, why do you strongly believe that Invisible Borders is redefining vernacular art or redefining performance in public space?

Okereke: When we talk about public space, you talk about the works of the likes of JR, the French photographer who does monumental installation of photographs in huge spaces. We also talk about people who make and show works in public space, like on 3rd Mainland Bridge as you said. You talk about sculptors who try to make work in public space. And this is, for me, what we generally understand as bringing art to the public space.

But I have begun to look at it differently. An extension of that is the fact that the physical public space is a function of the intricate networks and realities of people who make up that space. And that itself is a function of the immateriality of their everyday existence. Immaterialities are those little things you can’t see but that makes up people’s personalities and temperaments. It could be linked to their culture or not. You see the gradation, then — it is from the immateriality and it goes to become material, which is the personalities and intricate networks of a group of people and how they speak and how they move and then it comes to become the physical public space. If as an artist, you’re actually talking about performance, then it must begin from the essence, which is the materiality of people’s existence. You must actually get yourself intertwined with that intricate network….

Iduma: …and it must not be impositional…

Okereke: ….no it mustn’t be impositional, it must be collaborative in nature, because that physical space is only the end product. So putting up a finished photograph in a physical space and saying you have public space is like arriving at an end product without beginning. In this sense I relate to people like Banksi, a graffitti artist, who does his work everywhere, and there is no structure the way he goes about it. He’s always trying to work it into corners and alleys. I feel he’s like a graffitti artist who is doing a performance. Because there’s a way he uses the space that makes you think it’s happening in everyday reality, as opposed to JR putting his big photo up. It kind of places a frame and becomes an exhibition. No matter how you think it works so well in public space, it’s sensational, and at the same time it takes away that feeling that it is working gradually into people’s everyday life. And that for me is where Invisible Borders comes in.

The fact that we’re doing this and our work is to meet people every day, getting to work with the reality that we find on ground and not necessarily having a well-planned itinerary. The fact that we’re not just looking at putting out the physical work there, but we are actually in the everyday reality of people. As long as our audience is not the white-cube kind of audience. The exhibition is taking place while we’re doing the work, while we’re meeting people, while we’re sharing it online, in real time. There’s also taking into consideration the process. The process of making a work and the final outcome is not different. And then, when you talk about vernacular art making, you also look at the fact that we’re not necessarily thinking of how neat the work comes out, how perfect.

If I would touch on borders a little bit. ‘Borders’ is a vague thing. It’s a line that forms immediately a group of people decide to transcend a particular state of being. The difficulties we’re experiencing is only because we’ve taken into our hands to transcend, and all the forces coming in is what we see as borders. And that has come to make me believe that there will always be borders. When we began, we began with the naive idea that we have to eradicate borders. Think about it, you realize that in trying to eradicate borders you’re making borders, And you’re talking about eradicating borders because you’ve seen it as something that is there physically. Immediately you try to do something about something, you create a border. And then you might also be tempted so see borders as something that is limiting. At the first level, borders divide us, but when you look at it, it could also be what unites us. Borders make people come together and create a third dimension, it contemplates the idea of coexistence.

There would always be borders but our work is how to work with it, through it, and transcend it. We’re talking of how you’re using the borders, not if there’s going to be borders. It will not be a hindrance, but it will propel us forward. That is to say, the stories of success we have, and the stories of difficulties are all part of making the work. The more difficult it becomes, the more it gives us the sense of wanting to keep doing this. I don’t think it’s about arriving at a certain conclusion, but just the mere resilience of saying, “I don’t want to get stuck in my own way of doing things.” It’s about moving, constantly transcending the status quo, the state of being.

The 2012 Route:   Lagos (Nigeria) — Lubumbashi (Congo)

The Group: