It’s a bright July afternoon in Accra. At Nima roundabout, cars normally pass around the circle and pedestrians walk through, but this afternoon the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project exhibition draws attention and curiosity. People slow, pause, and stop to see the displays of immensely sized photographs mounted on wooden legs. The photographs, like windows, are portals to Egypt, Cameroon, Sudan, Nigeria — scenes distant yet familiar to many in Nima, its own international community of sorts.
‘Donkey (PokArt Waz Ere)’ was captured by photographer Kemi Akin-Nibosun in El-Garadif, Sudan. Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net.
“This one, it dey for my village,” says Hassan Muhammad, gesturing toward a large-sized photograph of a Sahelian scene. Together, we look at the image of a donkey, a thin blue rope tying his hind leg to a desert bush. A young man watches over, at the donkey’s back. It’s a minimal, yet beautiful scene of the desert landscape. The image, Donkey (PokArt Waz Ere), was captured by photographer Kemi Akin-Nibosun in El-Garadif, Sudan. For Muhammad, who comes from Bawku, a small town in Ghana’s Upper East Region, it’s easily a scene from home.
Muhammad, who made Nima his home more than 40 years ago, smiles brightly, eager to share his moment of nostalgia. “I come from the North,” he explains. “I’m working here, but every year I go back.”
He speaks of growing up in Bawku and coming to Accra, a brief period working as a trader in Nigeria more than a decade ago, his tailoring business here in Nima, and his wife and children that he yearns to share this photo with as well.
Nima’s residents hail from northern Ghana, West Africa, and beyond. Traditionally an indigenous Ga settlement, the community has morphed into a rich haven for immigrants from Ghana and the wider region.
A boy stares at Uche Okpa Iroha’s ‘Guardian Angel’ from the ‘Finding Rest’ series. Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net.
It’s for this reason that Invisible Borders chose Nima for the photo exhibition. “We picked Nima because of the location,” says Emeke Okereke, the project’s founder. “There’s a lot of dynamism that you find here.”
That dynamism is apparent as the number of visitors and onlookers ebb and flow. Some spectators come deliberately, others by chance, pausing to observe the commotion and then stopping by, a detour on their way to their destination. In the space of a few hours the roundabout transforms from a passive space to an active one. It’s a wonderful mix of visitors and Nima community residents regarding the photographs. As the numbers swell, vendors also gravitate toward the space, selling FanIce ice cream and sugarcane. Two girls compete in the game of ampe, while their team members circle round them and clap in unison.
Girls playing ampe. Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net.
Exploring new spaces for public engagement
Founded in 2009, the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography Project is an artist-led initiative that is about using photography and art to address the “patching of numerous gaps and misconceptions posed by frontiers within the 54 countries of Africa.”
The project’s hallmark activity is a road trip project: A dozen artist photographers set out on a cross-continental road trip, documenting the daily life, settings and people they encounter, and participating in photography festivals and exhibitions. In 2009, the inaugural team road-tripped from Lagos, Nigeria, to Bamako, Mali; in 2010, a team travelled from Lagos to Dakar, Senegal; in 2011, from Lagos to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In 2013, a team traveled from Lagos to N’Djamena, Chad and then from Lagos to Accra, Ghana.
The artists and leaders behind Invisible Borders envision “public space” as more expansive than just the physical spaces like Nima roundabout and exhibition halls. They are interested in continually engaging with their audience, which requires taking advantage of these traditional public spaces, as well as newer and alternative spaces, like social media and unplanned artistic encounters.
“I see several layers of different spaces and communities we work with,” says Robin Riskin, Invisible Borders’ Accra project manager.
Riskin lists the more formal public spaces – the exhibitions, talks and events that interested people intend. When the team places their artwork in public spaces, they draw another audience, “the everyday people, the commuters, the people from that neighborhood who walk by and see and engage with the space,” she says.
Riskin also points to the project’s online community and following built on social media platforms: “Whether they are here or not, they can follow our activity from abroad. Through these different kinds of on-the-ground and online spaces, we can engage many layers and levels of communities,” she explains.
“If you wish for peace, prepare for war,” reads the t-shirt of the young man captured in the photo. Victoria Okoye/africanurbanism.net
Emmanuel Iduma, a writer who also participates as a photographic subject, speaks of inserting oneself in another’s setting as a simultaneous artistic and public engagement experience. He refers to these as “metaphorical” spaces, adding that as artists and photographers who intervene in people’s lives in capturing a photograph, they create opportunity, a space to connect with the subject/ bystanders/onlookers who wonder about their actions and intentions.
“Every person will wonder, ‘What are these guys doing?’ And sometimes they ask you the question, and you begin to explain what your project is about,” Iduma says, adding that these encounters are means of showing the work and connecting with their audience.
In addition, Okereke says that the project team thrives off of the positive reactions of its audience, from individuals like Muhammad who make connections between faraway places (Sudan) and home (Bawku), seeing the similarities despite countries’ borders and perceived immense differences.
“That image was deliberately placed [at the exhibition],” he says, because of Nima. “We talk about how similar things are, you know, on the continent. But there’s a lot of diversity…but those similarities are supposed to be the anchor for you to enjoy the diversity. We try to sort of highlight the similarities so that it will form the basis for even engaging with our differences.”
Moving forward, Okereke says, the team intends to examine more of what he calls the “borders between the artist, the audience and the subject.”
“We began to really reflect on the performativity of the project, in the sense that it’s actually a performance, because everywhere we go to, our presence…brings about a disturbance.”
Based in Accra, Ghana, Victoria Okoye is a community planner, urbanist and communications professional passionate about inserting community dialogue into the planning process. In her writings and research, she explores the dynamics of West African cities, the people in them, and how they negotiate their spac
e. Victoria has masters degrees in Urban Planning and International Affairs from Columbia University, and she has worked in Nigeria and Ghana on local economic development, cultural planning, urban transport-land use and water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as local community development projects. Connect with Victoria on her blog African Urbanism and on Twitter.
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