Invisible Borders: An Interview With Uche Okpa-Iroha
Uche Okpa-Iroha is a photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria and founding member of the Invisible Borders Trans African Project. He was part of the photographic group’s first two road trips to Bamako, Mali in 2009 and Dakar, Senegal in 2010 – the latter producing his series of location-shot self-portraits "Finding Rest," inspired by struggles to cross over Africa’s political borders, stemming from repeated demands for bribes from corrupt border guards. His works from those trips appeared with that of 13 other artists in a multi-room Invisible Borders installation at 2015’s 56th Venice Biennale of Arts, titled “A Trans-African Worldspace.” The inspiration to pursue photography in general came after viewing a 2005 exhibition by Nigerian photographic collective Depth of Field, which included friend and Invisible Borders Artistic Director Emeka Okereke. Okpa-Iroha’s look at wealth and poverty amidst the roadway infrastructure of Lagos, “Under Bridge Life” won him the Seydou Keita Award for Best Photographic Creation at the 8th Bamako Encounters in 2009. He has also photographed similar European subjects in Amsterdam, Holland while completing a residency at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten from 2011-2012. He in turn founded and serves as principal of The Nlele Institute – African Centre for Photography, with the intention of making photographic education available and affordable to Nigerians who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. The influence of family has been a recurring theme in Okpa-Iroha’s personal and professional life. His brother’s fatal struggle with kidney disease led him to found an educational initiative about the condition, while the fraternal example set by the Corleone brothers in The Godfather helped inspire his recent project, “The Plantation Boy.” Okpa-Iroha photographed himself as an African subject reenacting the Italian-American characters and scenes of the iconic 1972 film, using the resulting photos as a larger commentary on identity and race in modern cinema. His work was also included in “Phantasms of the Non-City,” a photography show at the 2013 Lagos Photo Festival that looked at the impact from the 21st Century rise of Lagos as a “mega-city” and the displaced residents of the “non-city” left in its wake. I interviewed Okpa-Iroha via Skype from his home, and discussed art’s potential impact on 21st Century Africa, his work with Invisible Borders, and the importance of photography for promoting education and political awareness in Nigeria and beyond.
What follows are his words, adapted from our conversation.
On the Origins of Invisible Borders
It started in 2009, when we did the inaugural trip. Emeka came up with this idea, because that year he and I were invited to Bamako Encounters at the Bamako Biennale. The organizers gave us tickets, and Emeka said, “Hey, we've been flying all the time across Africa. Why don't we send the tickets back, and lets have the money, and we'll travel by road, and get a few friends to join in.” So that's what we did. Emeka spoke to some other friends, and we were able to convince them to travel by road so that we could see Africa from a different point of view. So we decided to do that, and that is how Invisible Borders started. We traveled to Bamako by road. I think we were like ten or so, and it wasn't an easy job. But it was very challenging, and also very exciting. It was a lot of fun to do. Emeka, we've been friends for a long, long time. The group that made it to Bamako on the first trip, we were all friends. We'd known each other prior to the trip, so it was like a “band of brothers.” It wasn't like a first time, “Hey, can we join in?” I never did any road trip like that. Some of the road trips I did were personal trips, like from one part of Nigeria to the other where I'm traveling with my family. But I never did that kind of long trip with artists or other photographers.
On Taking up Photography
Photography, for me, started in late 2005. I was holidaying in London, and Emeka and my friends had this exhibition at the South London Gallery as this collective called Depth of Field. They were being kind of mentored at that time by this Nigerian photographer, Akinbode Akinbiyi. So I was in London when Akinbiyi said, “Uche, we have an exhibition. Do you want to come and see it?” I said, “Yeah.” They were all friends: Emeka Okereke, Amaize Ojeikere, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, all of them. So I went to see the exhibition, and when I entered the hall it was like, “Oh my God, is this photography?” I saw it was amazing, and I had to talk to the curator. That was Akinbode Akinbiyi. I told him, “I would like to do this.” Because I was seeing images of Lagos I had never seen before, a different point of view, different perspectives. I didn't know that photography could be a visual language. I said, “Yeah, I'll do photography.” The following day, I went to shop in Jessops in London, and I bought a camera and a tripod, and I started photographing. So in 2006, I saw Akinbode Akinbiyi at a workshop at the Goethe Institut prior to the 2006 World Cup. The workshop was the Football Worlds, and that was my first platform into photography. I had not done any other thing until then.
The camera was the only thing I could work with that would give me that power to talk using visual imagery. In Lagos, the subject is never-ending. There is so much to do in Lagos. Even now, I think Lagos is under-photographed. So I use that as my petition. Because when I do an exhibition, and you have the public coming, amongst the people are maybe one or two in top positions. So they say, “What’s going on?” They look at it like, “They are talking to us, and they are trying to tell us things.” So that is what I did with my work. But now I’ve changed, and I’m a bit more conceptual.
On Under Bridge Life
I did a workshop with Emeka, I think in 2008. I was one of the facilitators. We brought in like six students from Paris, from the fine arts school for an exchange program with a set of six students from Lagos. So I did [Under Bridge Life] when we did a walk around the city, and I came to a very popular place, Makoko, where they have the floating city on the water. It’s like a slum. So that was where I made the photos. Like I said, you can never run short of subjects in Lagos. I came to this point and I saw a lot of children. I saw people selling wares under the bridge, and on top you see people driving to the posh area of Lagos, where almost 60% of the money for Nigeria is generated – Lagos Island. Yet under the bridge, you see poverty. There are children running around, and at that point of day people should be in school. I saw a lot of children out of school. The health issue was also important to me at that point.
The important thing as an artist is that I have to walk around what I see. When I come to a place, I say, “Okay, this is what I want to say.” Also, to give some kind of dignity to the people I photograph, at times, I blur my work. I try to deface them, so you won’t really see their faces. I use the space as an organic studio because when you see the line [of light between roads], it’s stationary. It’s shot like a ray of light. The gap you see is two bridges – one going, one coming back into the mainland. So that’s the median line. I had to spend five days working there, because I work with film. I don’t work with digital. Most of the time, I shoot film analog, because I like the output, the quality of film and everything that film gives me. So I had to go back there like five times to walk under the bridge to photograph. It was also part of the negotiating that space, because it is a very volatile area in Lagos. You can’t just carry a camera into that space and photograph. So I had to go there as an artist and talk to people, because they were asking me what am I doing, why am I photographing this. Art is provocative, and that’s why art is essential in society. Because we have to question how this society is run, how we want our society, and challenge those issues that are left unchallenged. So you can see people living under the bridge. It could be in Berlin. It could be in Rio de Janeiro. I did that kind of work in Amsterdam, photographing people living under that bridge.
I always use a stationary background, but the subjects will change. People keep going in and out, so I allow them to float in and out. They knew what I was doing, so most of them wanted to stand. But I said, “No, you don’t need to stand for me. Just do your daily thing, your normal thing. Just move in and out.” It was very low light, so I had to work with a tripod, and go in very low so I could get that light in my frame.
Because I live in Lagos, I know the traffic situation is legend. If I leave my house, and I want to keep an appointment for 3:00 p.m. on the island, I should be leaving my house by like 10:00 a.m. so that I can make it in time. These are some of the challenges we face in Lagos. For some photographers, they work on the traffic. Also because of the traffic situation, other generic things develop, like street hawking. You can also see social exclusion. You see that ephemeral affluence, and that abject poverty popping up. The other day I saw a Rolls Royce. They’re everywhere in Lagos, but I see people walking on the street, and I see this guy driving a Rolls Royce, and see this contradiction. Then you see a tall, beautiful building, and beside it you see this shanty house. It’s this contradiction in Lagos. Today they are building [Eko] Atlantic City. They reclaimed the Atlantic Ocean, and they are building what I call it a 25th Century city. I wouldn’t call it a 21st Century city. I would call it futuristic. They have already started. Who are they building the city for? Are they going to leave Lagos to degenerate? You know, not taking care of the infrastructure, the people. Because in Lagos, the population is booming. Lagos is just like the population of West Africa. It’s like Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire put together. That’s one city, Lagos, almost 30 million. It’s more than twice the size of the Netherlands in population. So you can imagine what we are going through. You have the infrastructure; people are not taking care of it. Roads are not there. The traffic is just because we don’t have adequate infrastructure. We need to create arterial roads that can move people from one point of the city to the other. Create alternative transportation, like develop the rail system. Because Lagos is like a city on the water, it creates waterways. So these are the issues I’m talking about. And artists, not just photographers, but painters, video artists are working on these themes.
On Family Impact on His Photography
My brother had kidney disease when I was a senior at university. I didn't really know about kidney disease, and I was researching, and I wanted to know more. Because when you have that kind of pain in your family, it’s something new and you don't know about it, so you want to know more. So I started researching, and at some point I just felt that most Nigerians don't even know what kidney disease is. So after I left school, I went straight into creating awareness for kidney education. I started an NGO for kidney disease, and started raising awareness for kidney disease, which I still do now. That was what I was doing until I started photography in 2006 – basically in mainstream public education, trying to create awareness about kidney disease. When my brother died, it was difficult. Because he died in 2008, the year I got married, and it was tough. But I think that experience molded me because I always tried to especially engage with the public in my work at that time. I'm doing something different right now, tending towards humanity. But I like to see myself as part of this society. When I walk the streets of Lagos, I see myself. Even when I'm carrying the camera or when I'm driving, I see something and say, “That could be me.” So my work at that point, I tried to report what was going on in the society, or narratives, especially in Lagos. Because when you go around, you see so many things. So I think that molded my visual path. I tried to look at stuff around me and say, “This could be me. This could be Uche.” Because when you have a country like Nigeria with so much wealth and money, and things are not really put in place, you wonder why.
On The Plantation Boy
I photographed myself using cinematic narratives to bring attention to the continent. The concept was an iconic movie, and at that point it was the 40th anniversary of the production of The Godfather. It was 1972 when it was produced, and 2012 was the 40th anniversary. I wanted to use movies as my reference point, and motifs to bring attention to the continent – trying to debunk those stereotypical images about Africa. So I wanted to use The Godfather, even though it’s an iconic movie, and there is nothing I could do to it. It’s just to use catharsis and humor to talk. So, I used it, showing the imbalance, especially in Hollywood, where the black actors are not really utilized or represented. I used it to address that issue. Not only in America, but in Europe and also in Nigeria is this kind of thing where you have some certain group in the margins. So when you look at the work, you see The Plantation Boy at the same level in every situation with the Caucasian. So there is closeness. That means we are sharing space and time. Not one being the master and the other being the servant. There is a kind of partnership going on. So that was what I wanted to show with the work. Also the stereotypical view about Africa where all those paradoxes – famine, war and everything that goes on – it happens every other place. But the image taken from Africa is a bit specific, and using that specificity at times, it is overblown. Now when you bring that to The Godfather, you see violence. You also see a family, and I see them as being on the margin. Whenever they want to exit that margin they are being pulled back by the other family. So I use myself as the reference point and the subject. Also, the general portraiture in photography is very ambiguous. We have the three codes: the viewer, the photographer, and the sitter. So what I’m trying to do is to break this triangular code, and also to be part of these three thread points.
On Nigerian Film Influences
I’m also interested in Nollywood because I’m working on setting up a film company, but not like what they are doing. When Nollywood started, I was still very young. It was just a group of five people who started it, and look at what we have today. It’s a large employer of people. The revenue generation is massive. But at this moment, they are struggling with quality, and also the kind of story that is put out there. When you look at the stories, they are bit more traditional, things happening in the village. But it is still a learning process. Presently, there are very good movies coming up. Especially the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. That also involved Hollywood, and was a good movie. There is also October 1. Some good films coming up. I think this is the direction Nollywood should go: improve on the quality, and involve more professional cinematographers. Directors have no problems engaging Hollywood, because they have quality, they have experience, they have the expertise, and the technology is there. I think Nollywood has overtaken Bollywood in terms of revenue generation. What we’re saying now is that the quality should improve. We should create more room for professionals to come in. There should be more incentives. Not just from the government, but also from the private sector. If someone like me has a good proposal to do film, I shouldn’t take ten years looking for funding. I should get some funding to start working with it. I think that’s one of the problems we are having – funding and trying to get the best hands to work. But the narratives, the scripting is changing, and I think there are more script conferences going on now. Better scripts are being written now than what we used to have before. Can you imagine that in those days a director would do 20 movies in one week? You would see one director jumping from one set to the other.
We’re also dealing with the issue of piracy. You have a good movie, and the people that funded it wouldn’t make anything off of it. But again, the issue is that quality should come in, and should reduce this one director from doing 20 movies in one week. It’s crazy. That is the uniqueness of being Nigerian. That drive, that passion to work and to deliver things. I’m interested in Nollywood, but from a different angle. I’m more interested in history, because our people really don’t know their history like Americans do. I was discussing with my wife the other day about Selma, and the interesting thing is that [director Ava DuVernay] had Nigerians. Carmen Ejogo is one of my favorites, and David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King. They are both Nigerians. So with that, I think it’s an inspiration to me that if Nigerians are doing this, it’s very nice. But my focus is on history. There are so many people who can tell the history of Nigeria, which especially the youth don’t even know. Our founding fathers they don’t know. Even the civil war in Nigeria, the youths of today, they don’t even know that we fought a war. Most of them don’t know, and when they hear that, they say, “Wow, that’s crazy.”
On Phantasms of the Non-City
That was at the Lagos Photo Festival. I was invited because of my work on The Plantation Boy. They are looking at the city from a different point of view, the family point of view, because the family is a microorganism of the larger society. So I didn’t work on my normal thing, like working on the streets of Lagos and photographing. I was working on issues we face, like families. So that work entered the festival because it kind of aligned with the theme, the Phantasms of the Non-City, how we can use conceptual photography to address issues about the city. There are other photographers that were part of that particular exhibition. I used mine as a reference point to the family. Family as in unity, what families can do together. Especially when you look at The Godfather, you see three brothers – four, when you include Tom Hagen – and they are trying to stick together. These are some of the experiences we go through in Nigeria. You have families, and at times there is friction. People are not working together. People are not going together. Also, one of the photos I did, I call it “Treachery is Closer Than You Think.” A part of the family theme is where they say people that betray you are very close to you. So these are some of the issues I look at and use in conceptual photography.
On the African Center for Photography
The institute I started in 2013 when I came back from the Rijksakademie. I’ve always had an idea to teach, and impart knowledge, and give knowledge to the next generation; and also to do it in a very professional way. I remember when I started photography, I didn’t have platforms or institutions where I could go to learn. I learned off people, like with friends. We’d sit down with Emeka. He’d say, “Uche, we are going to this street, we are going to photograph. Let’s just go, make our mistakes, come back, and look at the images.” That was then. Then we had only two foreign institutions that were giving opportunities to Nigerians through exhibitions. I wanted to change that, so that we could have an indigenous platform where we can teach photography in a very professional way. Also, to reach at the grassroots where access to the learning of photography is not visible, or is not present. So we’re not really interested in the established canons, like Emeka Okereke and Uche Okpa-Iroha. We are going down to the basics. Where Uche and Emeka come in is as part of the faculty, because they have the experience. So we get them and say, “Okay, you guys have been in photography for so many years. Why don’t you join the faculty, and let’s teach the young generation?”
Also, the good thing now is that we are part of this set-up known as the Centers of Learning for Photography in Africa, and we are working closely with the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. I just came back from Joburg, and I’m going back again with a team of four, because we are trying to build our faculty and we are learning from their experience. They’ve been around for 25 years. David Goldblatt is a South African photographer who started it 25 years ago. The amazing thing is that they started the way we started, in a small room talking to four or five students. Today they are very big and they’ve achieved a lot. Our philosophy is just to find these guys that love photography, they love art, but they don’t have that platform where they can go. The established institutions have so much bureaucracy, they are not teaching arts, especially photography in the universities. So why don’t we find an informal platform where we can teach photography in a very informal, collegial atmosphere, but still have good quality? We’re developing a project with these guys that sell on the street. Why are they on the streets? Because they don’t have access to education. They can’t meet the qualification, but they are very intelligent people. They don’t have money to go to school. So we are trying to do something to find out why are they on the streets. If you have the platform where you can have a fellowship or a scholarship, would you go to school? We want to start with maybe five people. Meet some very rich people in Nigeria, some organizations and say, “This is what we want to do. Fund us. Give us money to give these guys scholarships, because they want to go to school, and they want to learn photography. They want to become people.” Maybe they see Emeka Okereke is almost a celebrity in Nigeria, and they want to be like Emeka Okereke. So help us to make them be like Emeka Okereke, or to be like Pieter Hugo the South African photographer. These are some of the guys we are going to show to them. You can do photography, you can be like these guys, you can share your work, and you can improve your standard of living.
So our philosophy, like I said, is find them raw, put them through a developmental process that makes them visible. What we want to do is find peak moments in Africa, like Bamako, because we are working towards Bamako. There is the Joburg Photo Umbrella. These are some of the peek moments we want to utilize. We want to exploit them. So after developing these artists, these photographers, we want to push their work. Because we can’t just produce their work and keep them on the laptop. We want to make them visible, push them out. If we don’t push them out, they can’t enter Paris Photo, they can’t go to Venice Biennale. We need to start from somewhere. It’s not very easy. It’s been challenging, but I am someone who likes challenges. I like to challenge myself, because I know how I started. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have that funding then. I was just learning from friends, and look at where I am today. I’m trying to give back to the society that made me what I am today.
On Finding Rest
I always like to use Europe as an example. If I leave Amsterdam and I’m going to Paris, I take a trip, and I use the train. I’m very comfortable traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, and nobody’s asking. I remember when Emeka and I took a trip, I think we were going through Belgium. We had our Nigerian passports, even though we lived in Amsterdam. So we said, “Where is the police? Come on ask us.” It’s different in Africa, especially in West Africa. We have this thing called the ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States. Free movement, free trade, but it’s difficult crossing the border. We need to pay bribes. One of the things we did during that trip was that we refused to give bribes, so we spent more time at the border posts arguing with officials. So that was how I developed that work, Finding Rest, because the border is supposed to give me rest when I cross from my country, or from my familiar space, passing the no man’s land into the other space. It’s like moving from one state to the other. These are just political borders. You can imagine in Nigeria, you have the ECOWAS. In the neighboring country, Benin, you have the ECOWAS, so they are divided by a political border. In the southern part of Nigeria you have the Igbo and Efiks, and you still have them in Cameroon, but we are divided by a political border. So as we were traveling from one country to the other, I lay down and I photographed myself. I said, “This country is also my country. They are Black people.“ So what I did was, once we get to a country, I lay down, and I do a self-portrait. Remember also that was when I started working with myself as a subject, and also trying to see how the portraiture works. So I tried to photograph myself in every space I’d go. That is how I started that project, Finding Rest. Saying that these days our political borders are not anathema to our development, but it’s coming culturally, technologically. So we have to do away with our borders.
On the Importance of Art
In Venice, the Nigerian pavilion was withdrawn. Who are the people involved? They are the government. The people that should use art to propagate whatever they want to do, or to promote the country. But they don’t really see it. That’s why I say art is essential. Even though it is provocative, art is essential. When you come down to the basic politics, it is a dissent. Art had to develop democratic institutions and structures, but they don’t see it. They don’t even develop sites where this dissent can be expressed, so how can they respond. They cannot even respond. They cannot even identify a space or a center where dissent could be heard. Dissent I think is good for politics. People like Ai Weiwei, what he’s doing in China. But in Africa, people don’t really understand, especially people in government. They don’t really pay attention to art. That’s where it’s painful. When it comes to Bamako, the biennale has been around for a long time. They get all the funding from France, and I don’t really know if the Bamako Encounters has really affected the country in a positive way. Because once it’s done, everybody goes, and it’s the same until two years later.
I was discussing this with the current curator, Bisi Silva. This is the first time an African will be curating the Bamako Encounters. She was talking about Bamako and their response. After so many years, the response to photography is not that enormous like you have in Lagos. When you come to Lagos, you see the response to photography. Every day you see one young guy, he comes to you, “I want to learn photography.” But you don’t really see that in Bamako, even with the Bamako festival, and I think that is not a very good thing. Also, politically, I think the Bamako festival should give some kind of leverage to that country. Propagate the country, what they stand for, and iconic artists. I don’t know if they are very visible. Maybe because the funding comes from outside. If the funding comes from within, I think it would be more impactful, both to the people and also to other African countries around. Nigerians like to go to Bamako, to the festival, because it’s like the preeminent photo festival in Africa. Everybody wants to go to Bamako. It made me what I am today, because I won the Seydou Keita Award in 2009. It was the Bamako platform that gave me visibility. Every other person in Nigeria wants to go to Bamako, they want to win an award, and I don’t know if that is the same mentality in Bamako. The government should use the festival as a tool to propagate their philosophy, their ideas with democracy. Look how we see rebels fighting, terrorism everywhere, destroying artistic works, destroying monumental works, and destroying books over something trivial. So, what will be left? No history anymore. What I’m saying is that it should be like a rallying point for Mali. Not only for Mali, for other African counties to refocus and to develop their people. Because like I said, photography is a language in modality. You can use photography to talk, and also to develop our structures, our democracy.
Now Nigerians are yearning for development. A lot of things are going on in the country and the world. At times it’s painful to say, I don’t even know the kind of future my son has. When you look at it, what future do our children have? Especially when you go to the Northern part of Nigeria. They don’t really like education. That is the idea the Boko Haram is propagating. They say Western education is evil. If you don’t have education how do you expand your horizons? It’s the same thing you can imagine in Bamako and Timbuktu, where people are destroying monumental artifacts. I think one of the first universities in Africa was in Timbuktu. So what will be left? Nothing. I feel for Mali because it’s a small country colonized by the French. They are not landlocked. They have a sea. I think they have a port. Also, they have great history. Even the river in Nigeria, the Niger River, passes through Mali. These are some of the things that can open up Africa, when you have such a massive river. You can develop trade, commerce, dredging the river, developing the economy. The economy is through the cities that the River Niger empties into the Atlantic Ocean, but they are not using these resources. When you have a population that small, there are other areas that people can look at. Art is one of them. I wish we could use art to turn around things on our continent. Draw more attention to the continent. Create more platforms, and bring in foreign investment. Because when you have shows like the Bamako Encounters, it brings in FDI -- that’s Foreign Direct Investment. People come in with foreign exchange, and it helps the city, it helps the town. So small-scale business is developed. People selling souvenirs, one thing, or the other. So you help the city develop. That’s some of the ideas I share with some of the people I meet in Bamako. So these are some of the things we can do to bring that vibrancy back to Bamako. It’s a very small city, small town, and small country. Once the Bamako is over, I don’t know what else goes on. But it’s good it’s happening in Bamako, and it’s good to support Bamako.