By Emmanuel Iduma
Founded in 2009 by a group of Nigerian photographers led by Emeka Okereke, Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers is primarily known for its ambitious exploratory crossings of African borders by road. I was invited in 2011 and 2012 to join the third and fourth iterations of the road trip, from Lagos to Addis Ababa and from Lagos to Libreville, respectively. After the first two editions of the project, it became customary to invite artists in other disciplines – writers, filmmakers and cultural historians – and from outside Nigeria.
Those trips changed my life – I feel itchier now, like an endless surface has been placed below my fingers, like I am thrown into a mass of cancerous chemicals that doesn’t kill but leaves perpetually fresh scars. I speculate that I have become conscious of a trans-African outlook, defined in detail by Okereke in his now-famous essay, “Transcending Africa”.
I remember I was in law school when I was invited to participate. I had been preparing to write my bar exams, which meant that, in a few months, I would be qualified to practice law in Nigeria. But being who I am – Spivak might have said I have “roots in the air” – practicing law sufficed in my consciousness as studying it. To be asked, then, to write daily while travelling by road from one country to another seemed the beginning of a lifelong wish to cross territories and to create connections with unfamiliar ways of being. The fact was that I had written an email asking if I could participate. At the time I enquired, participants had been announced, but it turned out that there was still need for a writer.
The temptation I have each time I write about being on those road trips is to be troubled by certain questions: what did it mean to write about African cities? What had it meant to be the voice of the journeys? Did I capture the shifting realities of each city we crossed into in the manner the photographers did? I understand that to write each time with these questions in mind is quite individualistic and dangerous; dangerous because the language required of me is set by collective parametres..
Yet, I realise that it is something I shouldn’t be worried about. When we travelled into each city, each person was tasked with making individual work, either based on a project concept or an attempt to capture the motions and energy of that city. I, in turn, was tasked with reporting the journey. It was a broad job description that included keeping a regular blog, pioneering conversations with the participants and other cultural operators we met. In this sense there was an “I-we” approach to the creation of work. Invisible Borders, in that sense, provided a platform for engagement with the fluid notion of African modernity, and reality; individual artists were invited to cast their artistry within that mould.
If our attempt had been to sidestep generalisations and present Africa as a mishmash of subtleties, then it was important that we approached our work mindful of how artistic collaboration and cultural exchange extended the frontiers of the conversation about African modernity. Our goal as individual artists was to respond peculiarly to a shared dilemma about Africanness, and how a modern Africa should not (necessarily) be viewed through Eurocentric realities.
It’s necessary to describe the nature of the project: We get a bus and head out. We move toward the border, spending days in cities that excite us. Sometimes our stay in a town is necessitated by logistics, such as being trapped in Mamfe, Cameroon after a Chinese construction van had hit our van from behind, and we had to pay a fine and negotiate the van’s release because it had not been insured in Cameroon. As we travel towards the border, we are stopped often because of our car’s number plate and we always expect we’ll be asked for bribes. To a request for bribe. we state that we’re journalists and require receipts for every transaction made, that our work is being featured on international media, and we are eager to always narrate our experiences to the last jot. When we get to the border, thus in the new country, we endure immigration headaches and the surliness of officials, usually heightened if we are going in with our van – we might need to deposit a large sum of money as caution fee.
In the new country we look for accommodation, try new food, meet with project partners, are introduced to some of the city’s artists, work around the streets of the city taking photos and making video clips. Days go by in this manner and soon we have to move on. The timelessness of it all interests me as the stupendous mental border we cross. Being immersed in cities like Douala, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Libreville for a scheduled amount of time – places coloured with defiant energy – make me think that a special form of honesty is required of us. It is such an honesty that demands we accommodate moment-by-moment interactions – such as responding to questions from bewildered residents who want to know how we travel through the bad roads into Libreville, or accept the invitation of an Igbo family to sleep over in their modest, unpainted apartment, or have an extensive conversation about travel with the Cameroonian gendarmerie.
During the road trip we cross the border that is ourselves, like shedding a skin meant to be re-worn. We sleep for nights on end in uncomfortable positions, eat unhealthy food, trust the guardianship of strangers. But in doing all of that we negate the negativity that accompanies travel across new territory; we are those to whom unfamiliarity is stripped of its hideousness.
The borders rendered invisible, therefore, are preconceived notions of coexistence on the African continent. Okereke argues that “instead of reinforcing borders through clinging to an identity for fear of losing oneself, we ought to see ourselves as work in progress, constantly in motion and activity…”
Being found in the identity of others, I believe, is the first element of becoming trans-African. In the weeks we spend on the road, there is a crisscrossing of one identity into another. Our engagement is with the ever-fluid, non-physical border; we see art as the tool of engagement, travel as the framework that makes such engagement possible. Our destination is not the last city we visit, the journey is. We seek a poise that makes us kin with each city, in a literal, metaphoric and conceptual sense.
But this trans-African quest is perpetual, like groping for the invisible.
In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.
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