The Megacity and the Noncity

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Uche Okpa-Iroha Interview

WRITTEN BY: Medina Dugger

PhotographyNigeria

As you know, the theme of the 2013 edition of LagosPhoto was entitled The Megacity and the Non-City. How relevant did you find this theme, specifically in terms of photography currently being represented and exhibited within Africa today?

It was relevant in the sense that it offered the participating artists the opportunity to present a wide range of oeuvres and portfolios. It was not just about photojournalistic images of the city, people, power and capital and documentary photography from what we all saw at the World Press Photo exhibition at Eko Hotel & Suites, which was shown alongside the festival. It involved more conceptual approaches from photographers like Ayana Jackson, Samuel Fosso and Kelechi Amadi-Obi, to name a few. In Africa today, the core issue has been that of representation and identity for most photographers. They are now deconstructing colonial stereotypes and clichés of representation imposed on us by photographers from our colonial past.

The Plantation Boy series seems visually to be more along the lines of conceptual/performance photography, which is quite different from the photojournalistic nature of your other well-known series, Under Bridge Life. Do you see this as a shift in your photographic style or practice? How do you negotiate these two different modes of photography?

Well, the Under Bridge Life series will remains a very important aspect of my career because it reflects the society and environment we live in and we can’t wish it away unless something is done to positively change it. The series also marks a career turning point because I won the Seydou Keita Award with it in Bamako in 2009. The series questions the social, economic and political aspects of our society and serves as an indictment or petition to those who represent us in platforms of authority. There are elements of appropriation of space, degraded infrastructure and issues of the deviant and marginal populations involved in the series. Under Bridge Life is in a position to bear witness to the inequalities we encounter daily as common people.

The beauty of photojournalism is that it can arouse concern, provoke indignation and also move viewers to action. That is the message of the series. Documentary photography and especially photojournalism plays an important role in providing the iconography for a moral economy of images through the use of generic tropes and formal conventions to fashion scenes, scenarios, composed bodies and landscapes in ways that foreground issues of human relations.

However, with The Plantation Boy series, I am looking inwards to explore, conceptually, other forms of representation and identity. I am my own subject here (in the space of an already available conversation of The Godfather movie), and by engaging the media dynamics of race, I try to look into the sequences of past events (social or historical) and becoming part of an already established or known conversation and actions. The series is multilayered, but its core theme borders on what I will refer to as “the subjective representation of the presence of an omission,” the representation of a deviant culture or race that was not originally there. The whole process creates an illusion. There is also a new dialogue from the simple act of intrusion and new scenes are instigated.

But then, I choose to float between the style for Under Bridge Life (documentary photography) and that for The Plantation Boy (conceptual photography). I do not want to be boxed in a corner into a particular form as an artist. I want to have the freedom to express myself whenever possible and however possible. I choose to be elusive, that is what art is all about.

Why did you choose to use the movie The Godfather in your project The Plantation Boy

Simple! It is an iconic movie and a masterpiece. I wanted to pay tribute to a well made movie at its 40th anniversary in 2012. But having said that, the movie is also hinged on the family, which is a form of identity and representation. I felt a certain culture and race was not well represented and this brings to forefront the western media dynamics of race and its complexities. In order to question this, I decided to intrude into this space using simulation as a form of representation by proxy.

Do you feel that the media dynamics of race have changed since the 1970’s when this film was made?

I do not think the ideal balance has been achieved. Hollywood as a movie industry is very complex and transforming racial paradigms will take some time. I think some racial notions, racialized hierarchies and the hegemony of whiteness must be neutralized for there to be a meaningful change.

Can you explain the concept behind you photography organisation in Lagos, The Nnele Institut: African Centre of Photography (TNI.ACP)? What has been the biggest achievement in your eyes? What has been the biggest challenge? What are your goals for the institute in the next five years?

The original plan, which is still the same, is to go out and search for young and talented photographers who have a passion for photography, engage them in workshops and other developmental processes, and give them all the necessary support for them to learn and then make them visible. This is the foundation of our mission, to provide the platform for the visibility of artistic practices with a focus on photography, video art and other lens and time based media.

We also want to foster artistic, intellectual and professional development of photographers through exposure to a wide range and variety of viewpoints by our faculty, guest artists and curators.

Our biggest achievement thus far is being able to organise very well the four workshops earmarked for this year, and also being able to add value to the career of the emerging photographers who participated in our workshops.

Our biggest challenge is funding and the challenge of letting the art demography of Lagos to learn about what we stand for and how relevant TNI.ACP is in context as an informal creative and developmental space. Within the next five years, we at TNI.ACP want to consolidate on the gains of our inaugural years. Then we will look into expanding our operations. This will definitely involve infrastructural and programmatic expansion of the organisation. We hope to provide studios and project spaces for all photographers who come to TNI.ACP. Equipment procurement will not be overlooked. We also want to engage artists in residencies and exchange programs in our facility and reach out to both African and international platforms for possible collaborations. Our plans are endless but the future holds a lot of promise, God willing!

LagosPhoto was proud to exhibit work from TNI.ACP in this year’s edition of the festival. Does the institute have future plans to exhibit in other festival/fairs within and outside of Africa?

It was really nice showing TNI.ACP at the Lagos Photo Festival 2013. We hope we will come out stronger next year if we have the opportunity to do that. Certainly, we want to show as often as possible in any platform available to us. Part of our objective is to make artists visible and we will not let any opportunity to achieve this slip off.

Did your fellowship at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kusten change your approach to photography at all?

Definitely, I went to a place where they believe that the philosophy for learning is to keep an open mind. It really worked for me and I assimilated a lot within the two years I stayed at the Rijksakademie. The environment was cordial and collegial with an international mix of artists, different styles, forms and oeuvres. The structure at the Rijksakademie is very flexible and this flexibility provided the impetus to explore. It would not have come at a better time than when I got into the institution. At that point, I was seeking for answers to a lot of questions about myself as an artist, on being an African and being different.

Can you discuss current or future projects you are working on? 

Work in progress! Work in progress!! But I promise you’ve not seen the last of the Plantation Boy, God willing.