The Megacity and the Noncity

The Megacity and the Non-City: Performing Place Banner

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The Megacity and the Non-City: Performing Place

WRITTEN BY: By Joseph Gergel


If the traditional definition of a “city” is determined by the geographic limits of mapped land terrain, or a phenomenological understanding of the self in a measurable time and space, then “megacities” are creating a new reality yet to be comprehensively studied in Africa today. Lagos, for example, is a city with over seventeen million inhabitants by many accounts, though an exact number is incalculable due to inconsistent census standards. 1 Lagos is the archetypal city of extremes, a city where the majority of the population lives on less than three hundred dollars a year while simultaneously ranking as the largest selling market of champagne outside of France.2 Lagos is a city with a lack of basic infrastructural civic needs, yet boasts some of the largest wealth in the world.  

While the majority of the population is under thirty years of age and often unable to access foreign visas to visit other countries due to their lack of travel, Nigerian telecommunications companies market cell phone plans specifically targeted to social media users who would otherwise not afford a monthly contract. Nigerians today, as is symptomatic of a vast amount of the population in Africa, irrespective of their economic status, are foremost identified by the technologies they consume. This consumption is not confined to their country of origin, but a connectivity on a global scale.

This is and should not be shocking, as this follows global trends of a digital age. What is shocking, however, is the presiding notion that Africa is somehow left out of this global conversation, that a Nigerian artist can go to Europe and be asked if Internet exists on their continent. While global patterns of development place many parts of the world on equal cultural standards, the vast changes taking place in the twenty first century are possibly most telling in non-western centers such as Lagos.

For the purposes of this assessment, Lagos is just one example of developing urban centers in Africa. Of course, social, political, and economic specificities prohibit this from being a pan-African viewpoint or an all-encompassing analysis of the continent. But overall, there is much to be said for how technology and urban development are changing the understanding of the individual, of their sense of place and identity, in Africa today. In an attempt to articulate a new definition of the “city” and of the African reality in a globalised world, this first issue of Art Base Africa examines the evolving cultural landscape in Africa and attempts to place this reality on a more equal footing with other international metropolises.

The first issue of Art Base Africa shares its theme with LagosPhoto Festival 2013, entitled The Megacity and the Non-City. LagosPhoto is an international arts festival of photography in Lagos, Nigeria, which includes a month long program of exhibitions, workshops, artist presentations, panel discussions, screenings, and outdoor installations that revolve around an annual theme. In its fourth edition, The Megacity and the Non-City examined how the development of urban centers in Africa and the technical advances in photography have transformed our sense of place in a globally connected world. Featuring over fifty photographers spanning fifteen countries, The Megacity and the Non-City examined two sides of photography, the documentary tradition and expanded artistic practices outside of the camera. Conceptually, the festival explored two notions of the “city”, one informed by vast changes taking place at an unprecedented speed (such as population explosion, urban development, socioeconomic gaps and the rising middle class) and the other defined through though technology, the Internet, and the digital revolution.

A concurrent thread throughout The Megacity and the Non-City is an exploration of how our understanding of geographic space is tied to the construction and articulation of identity, whether manifested as collective cultural identity, personal identity, or a global consciousness. In this analysis, the photographic image serves as a central site of dispute, at once the problem and the solution, in shaping perceptions and stereotypes. In his series Télé bi, for example, Senegalese photographer Mouhamadou Sow adopts the simple gesture of framing images of street life in Dakar through the plastic frame of a television screen. Sow captures scenes that reveal daily activities in Dakar: teenagers playing on the beach, street hawkers selling their merchandise, and fisherman in the midst of their trade. In one sense, Sow’s images follow the general routine of the documentary photographic tradition, recording the social dynamics of the city around him in an attempt to reveal a cultural “truth”. Yet his the inclusion of the plastic television frame in the foreground of the images immediately signals a different motive, as he subverts the photojournalistic gaze to comment on how the city is cropped, edited, and presented to an international audience.

In Sow’s Boys Playing at the Plage de Virage (2012), a group of teenagers pose into the “screen” of the television frame. Two boys lean towards their surfboard as another gazes from a distance. To the left, another teenager smiles at the scene in front of him in mid laughter, while another holds up the television. By expanding the photographic plane outside the television screen and creating two framed scenes, other details emerge that create new narrative associations: the architecture of the city, the sand, umbrellas, beach chairs, and street merchants selling refreshments. By referencing the limits of framing, Sow allows for the subjects to perform rather than be captured. The consciousness of the subjects, implicit in the construction of the image, takes the photographer’s power of sole agency away, initiating a shared dialogue between photographer and his subjects. The presence of the photographer and the photographic act is made paramount, refuting the invisible presence of the author that the documentary tradition purveys. Sow uses the screen to raise questions over the representation (and misrepresentation) of daily life in Africa, as photographers select the types of images and stories they wish to portray.

If Mouhamadou Sow’s project sets his analysis directly in the urban center, Nigerian photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha uses the body as the site of prescribing cultural identity. His series The Plantation Boy includes a series of studio shots, re-enactments, and film stills that re-examine Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather. Okpa-Iroha re-imagines the seminal Western film by inserting himself into the mix, both photoshopping himself into actual scenes of the movie and taking on the persona of Don Corleone in other staged versions. His insertion in the film calls into question the role of race in Western cinema, specifically the lack of representation of the black body in the cinematic cannon. For Okpa-Iroha, the film highlights several types of representational categories --- that of ethnic identity (the characters’ affiliation to an Italian-American heritage), of family (the close-knit allegiance to the patriarchal crime unit), and whiteness (inherent in its exclusion of difference).

Okpa-Iroha adopts a variety of film roles that question these categories on different levels. In one still, Okpa-Iroha becomes the bartender pouring a whiskey at a private family meeting, mimicking the more traditional roles of black actors at that time. In another shot, Okpa-Iroha is a willing accomplice of a crime spree, in that sense part of the business and organisational unit of the Corleone dynasty. In another, Okpa-Iroha becomes a family member at a wedding in the Italian countryside. By moving between roles and the various dynamics of identity in the film, Okpa-Iroha attests that he is all of them but also none of them.

In Being a Corelone (2012), Okpa-Iroha re-stages himself as the film’s main character. The scene, set in a plush nineteenth century interior parlour, includes the artist dressed in suspenders and tie, flanked by a group of Asian accomplices. One woman holds his hand and looks into his eyes, another kisses his other hand, while a male companion stares bleakly forward as if on guard. The artist’s direct gaze – accentuated by carefully staged lighting, composition, and pose - contrasts the cinematic quality of the image by breaking the fourth wall. Okpa-Iroha becomes the big boss himself, and by doing so he questions Western notions of otherness, affirmative in the cultural plurality that was ignored in the film’s original version.

As Uche Okpa-Iroha questions the media dynamics of race in Western cinema, UK-based artist Karl Ohiri examines identity in relation to migration and a multi-cultural upbringing. In his series My Granddad’s Car, Karl Ohiri returned to Nigeria (his family’s country of origin) in an attempt to bring his grandfather’s car back to the United Kingdom. UK based artist Sayed Hassan mirrored the project, attempting to bring his grandfather’s car back from Pakistan, his ancestral home. By documenting their journeys and taking on performative roles for the camera, the project explores the artists’ histories, cultural heritage, and identities as products of migration.

In Sitting in the Car (2012), Ohiri poses inside of the remnants of his grandfather’s car, now partially decrepit and rusted, in the lush landscape of his family’s compound in Nigeria. While Ohiri sits in the car as if in mid-drive, the car has no wheels, floorboard, or windows, and as a functional object is now completely defunct. As a symbolic object, however, much like the television frame in Mouhamadou Sow’s Telebi, the car represents a level of connectivity. The aged car, a product of an era when the automobile represented a new type of mobility, also serves as a tangible connection to his grandfather and his Nigerian roots. By attempting to physically transport the car from Nigeria to the UK, Ohiri attempts to complete the circle of migration that his parents began a generation before.

It is interesting to note that Ohiri was never able to complete the international shipment of the car from Nigeria to the UK, and Ohiri includes customs documents in his project to serve as a preliminary endnote to the journey. In fact, the car (which lacks any utilitarian use), is now stuck with the Nigerian port authority who is demanding an excessive amount to move the car. Yet, the success of the project lies not in the final outcome of the car, but the relationship between the object and place, and Ohiri’s process in his quest to explore his family history.

Samuel Fosso’s The Emperor of Africa, which premiered during LagosPhoto 2013, further explores the ambiguous connection between identity and place through photographic performance. Samuel Fosso, now a seminal figure in contemporary African photography, is known for his ongoing series of self-portraits where he takes on various guises and roles for the camera. Fosso began taking portraits of himself around 1975, after moving to the Central Africa Republic during the Biafran War and sending photographs back to his family in Nigeria. While during his teenage years Fosso experimented with identities and personality types, his later work engages primarily with issues of perception: how the world sees Africa and how Africans see themselves. A recent projects, African Spirits, shows Fosso taking on the role of iconic African and African American figures, including sports personalities such as Mohammed Ali, civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, and African dignitary Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor.

His latest series, The Emperor of Africa, depicts Fosso adopting the persona of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, infamous for the mass dissemination of propaganda imagery throughout his rule. In the images, Fosso positions himself in Mao’s various guises: Mao the statesman, Mao the farmer, Mao the military dictator, Mao the pensive thinker. In doing so, Fosso calls into question the complex political, social, and economic dynamics in Africa-Chinese relations. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner, with many Western countries accusing China of a “neocolonialist” role in the continent. 3 Fosso also highlights the malleability of identity roles that photography, as a medium, helps construct. In the evolution of his photographic practice he uses this ambiguity to comment on larger questions about ethnic and geographic identity and its relationship to the political economy.

While many artists in The Megacity and the Non-City explore identity in relation to evolving notions of geographic space, THANKSTHANKSAFRICA looks to the virtual environment of our increasingly digital age. THANKSTHANKSAFRICA is a self-described fictional artistic collective that exists solely on the Internet and was created as an entity to support artistic, political, and social inquiry. While the project began with a specific focus on the relationship between the continent of Africa and China, it has since expanded to include the the global relationship between Africa and the “outside”. THANKSTHANKSAFRICA produces work that is disseminated through the Internet, most often posters that are a combination of appropriated mass media images and arbitrary text.

Though THANKSTHANKSAFRICA’s artistic projects are generally immaterial, as they are transmitted through social media platforms such as Facebook, their installation Man vs. Man at LagosPhoto 2013 expanded the collective’s practice into a three-dimensional environment. In the three wall installation, an image of Italian-Ghanian footballer Mario Balotelli (flexing his muscles as he poses) is repeated with the phrase “MAN Vs. MAN”. Accompanying the repetitive image is a photo-collage of a man and a rock, overlaid with the words “MAN Vs. ROCK”. With a seemingly pedagogical overtone, the project appropriates ambiguous images from Internet searches without clear reference to an implied message or meaning. Instead, their references are blended as a cohesive mesh of skewed identity, highlighting larger issues concerning cultural plurality and the formation of the other. By embracing the virtual space of the internet, THANKSTHANKSAFRICA asserts that traditional concepts of place can no longer hold in an era of digital connectivity.

By adopting strategies outside of traditional documentary photography, including performance, appropriation, and conceptual practices, the artists presented in The Megacity and the Non-City examine photography’s relationship to constructing our personal and collective worldview. While identity and place have always held an inherently symbiotic relationship, these artists explore the ambiguities that arise in our increasingly global age as cultures collide and cross-pollinate. No longer confined to binary oppositions, these artists attest that our sense of place in Africa today is being increasingly defined as both here, there, and everywhere.


1 Deji Elumoye. “2006 Census: Lagos is 17.5m, not 9.03m, Says Tinubu,” THIS DAY Nigeria, June 2, 2007.

2 Afua Hirsch, “Nigeria’s love of champagne takes sales growth to second highest in the world,” The Guardian, May 8, 2013.

3 Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero, “China and Nigeria: Neo-Colonialism, South-South Solidarity, or Both?” Huffington Post, July 19, 2013.