How far can you shine your light?

Interview with Nii Obodai by Marian Nur Goni, Paris, 25th june 2009

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Nii Obodai, Ghanaian photographer, whose work, « Who knows tomorrow » was exhibited in June at the « Invitations africaines » show at the « Centre Atlantique de la Photographie » in Brest.

Prelude : Before starting the discussion, Nii Obodai opened the interview with a quotation by Marcus Garvey about how to conduct oneself before speaking to the public…
You started by citing Marcus Garvey… Do you consider yourself a Panafrican?
Definitely, I come from a Panafrican family… Africa! Automatically it makes me a Panafrican, I think. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, Makeba Boateng, organized some « talk parties ». We get together, as a group of friends, and we have a subject, we eat, we have some drinks, and then we come and sit around and we discuss the subject for the night. They were really nice evenings. People may think that it’s boring but, actually, we had a great time! Our first talk party’s question was: « Are you Panafrican, conscious, if you don’t live in Africa? » The answer to most of us was: « It doesn’t matter where you live, Panafricanism is a state of consciousness, it’s what you feel about yourself. »
What do you think about the political project that people like Kwame Nkrumah desire for Africa?
We are for fulfilling that dream. Nkrumah’s dream was so powerful that people who observed Africa went into a state of shock, and reacted violently to this idea of an African personality – and I’m not talking specifically of Nkrumah, but about yourself and myself, we who are capable of navigating and negotiating with the rest of the world. Nkrumah believed we were, and we are, a strong and powerful people. I believe that all we need to do is to wake up to this fact. And it’s true! I think once you’re awake to your inner strength, there is no turning back. It’s very difficult to go back and you say: « Ok, I want to be that former person »… New doors are always opening for you to express yourself. I’m constantly asking myself: « Who am I? » Not in terms of « racial » context, but in terms of the context of humanity. It’s important for anybody who calls himself Panafrican to see himself within the context of the rest of humanity. You know, I have a tee-shirt with Fela Kuti and Thomas Sankara on the front – the picture was taken in Sankara’s office -, and the caption says « Panafricanism is Internationalism ». That is so appropriate! This give us power as Panafricans to see ourselves as part of the greater good of humanity. I think it would be destructive if we only saw ourselves as Africans. This is my open view of Africa. The real power comes when you’re able to absorb the rest in yourself and walk and talk and shine your light. That is really important. It’s what I’m here for.
Can you say a few words about your family? I know that your father was very close to Kwame Nkrumah. What do you know about this story?
I grew up away from my father. We really got to know each other intimately in the last few years of his life, which was a great thing for both of us. He passed away in 2007. I like to say that he transitioned; he joined the space of the ancestors. He’s one of the people that I came to know in life who had great experience, not only concerning his own life, but in giving to Ghana too. What I came to realize, when we started to communicate with each other, was the immensely glorious life he lead; being one of the closest people to Kwame Nkrumah made him a very special person in my eyes. Not just because he was my father. He was a great historical figure in terms of Ghana, and automatically in terms of Africa’s history, because the two go together. It was fascinating to hear from him his relationship with
Nkrumah, his perceptions. He told me about how Nkrumah came to the CPP: my father was working in the propaganda section, going from community to community to spread the word of the party. Nkrumah was really impressed with this organization’s skills. He received a surprise visit at home when Kwame Nkrumah came to the house to ask to my grandparents if he could adopt my father, basically to assist him in the Independence mission. My father was a young man in the 1950s and he held Nkrumah in very high esteem, as a father figure as well. In his view, he was adopted as a young man by an older man to guide him through life. So long as they were in the country together, they played tennis in the morning every day, that’s how they began the working day. They had a very close
relationship; it was something that grew, the trust between them. During the journey to bring us to the point of Independence, they spent a year in prison together and they were in the same cell. If you look back now, it was so crucial to have spent that one year in prison because it was a time that gave them space to organize their minds, they didn’t have a lot of people to deal with, no distractions, and they were able to use the prison’s services to send messages to the party, or internationally. They had their own system running. The prison was located in an area close where my father grew up. One of the prison officers, who was related to my father, worked with them to channel letters and information in and out, bringing food and whatever resources they needed… I saw the prison cell recently for the first time, because the government has de-relegated the prison, it’s no longer a prison; it’s now the property of the Ghana National Museum (1).
Is it open to the public?
I don’t think it’s officially open to the public. A group of us are going to use it for an exhibition called Meet Me Half Way. The exhibition will look at the dualities of our culture, with respect to social political representation in the arts, at being multicultural (2). It’s been managed and curated by Lesley Lokko, author and architect. Earlier this year, when I visited the prison for the first time, I found a gloomy and desperate place. It shocked me, as prison and the idea of prison always does. To confine the human spirit. Someone pointed out Kwame Nkrumah’s cell, and I said: « Oh my God, my father was in there… » It was quite a moment for me. To be faced with the reality of this confinement. It was a very tiny space. I was told that, basically, the prisoners, Nkrumah and my father, had 22 minutes of light during the day because of the layout of the cell. There was only one small hole in the wall to let light in. Human beings are really crazy to each other…
What is the work you’ll exhibit there about exactly?
In a sense, it’s related to the work that I’m showing in Brest, which is about the legacy of Independence: where are we, from an environmental point of view, from the point of view of memory? Where are we in terms of dialogue, of cultural maintenance, of the maintaining of certain icons from different political periods…? Governments change, and information or monuments are destroyed, so we don’t have to deal with the past. But the past has not disappeared, our legacy is right in front of us, we can ignore it as much as we want but it’s still there. In the same way that Guy Tillim is looking at Patrice Lumumba’s legacy all over Africa… I’ve been working in a similar way, looking at our structural memory. The visit to the prison came along later on, quite recently. It was a « pleasant » surprise for me. There’s a relationship between that space and what I’m doing… And actually, I’m wondering: « Am I ready to exhibit in that space? » Maybe I need to do a little bit more work, exploring and looking for something more specific and deeper. It’s said that if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you can’t move forwards. It’s important for us to know where we come from historically, and to ask ourselves: « Who are we? », « where are we? », « where are we going? »
After this Ghanaian photographic journey, have you found any answers?
I think that many people are focused on the material side of life: on material politics and on material economics and that is a cause of concern for me, because I don’t really see the kind of progress that the fathers of Independence, their vision, recommended. I don’t see us in this area; we are fragmented, we’re tribalistic, we think in terms of Ashanti, Yoruba, Ga… This happens too often in the political sphere. There is a Kwame Nkrumah speech in which he asks the freedom fighters of Africa not to fall into the hands of tribalism, because that is the weapon for the oppressor: divide and rule…
Once that has happened, we have lost. We’re doing it to ourselves, it’s a terrible thing. Look at the portraits I’ve done. I’m not telling you where everybody comes from: as far I’m concern in terms of Ghana, they are all Ghanaians, they just come from different parts of the country, and, for me, they are all telling me great stories. That is what I’m interested in. Often people ask me: « Where are you from? » I know what they mean; they want to know what tribe I am from.
Is it because people can’t immediately recognize you in tribal terms?
Yes, people think I’m little bit freaky!
So, what do you answer?
Sometimes I say: « It doesn’t matter »; sometimes I say where I’m from; sometimes I just say: « I’m a Ghanaian like you ». A lot of the time, it’s tiring having that dialogue. I just like being myself.
Portraits, landscapes, a series on miners, another on an abandoned famous hotel, The Atlantic. 6x6cm, 35mm, panoramic photographs… Your work is very rich.
Yes, there are many things going on but, in life, lot of things are going on… I look at different things from different perspectives and using different forms. I don’t see why I should stay in one place. I like to explore. Everything has its own flavour, its own means of expression. The energy I share with you is different from the energy I share with somebody else, so I can’t go back and say that that is the experience. It was the same with the photographs and this journey. I set out with multiple cameras and films… It was the spirit of the work that was calling for me to have multiple voices. It was very confusing for me at the beginning: « why am I carrying so many cameras, what am I looking for? On the journey, I kept telling Bruno (Boudjelal): « I don’t know what I am looking for ». A little while after, it became a spiritual thing: instead of struggling with it, I decided to make no plans. Just, whatever happens. Giving in to the spirit of the journey. Like all you need to do is decide what camera you’re going to use at that moment and the you know what to do. The results, the aesthetics of the work have been a spiritual endeavour: I left it to intuition and the forces of the invisible to guide me into creating this work.
You said before that you may need to go deeper into this work. Are you already clear in your mind in what direction you will do that?
In this work, I clearly ask myself and other African people, Ghanaians specifically, some questions: « Who am I? », « who are we? », « what is going on? » « Are we going to repeat the same thing? », « are we going continually to destroy our history, or are we going to use it for its purposes, which is to give us guiding assistance for the future? » That is the purpose history should serve; it shouldn’t serve as something you hold on to or run away from, it should serve us as a guide our children. « Look, this is where we are coming from », and if they want to make decisions they can say: « ok, we can go this road or that road… », but if we destroy our past, they won’t have information to work on to help them realise themselves. And because they are culturally involved with us – they are our children – they will repeat
the same mistakes we’re repeating, and that is what is happening. So, I have asked the questions: « Look at what surrounds me: do we, as Africans, care about this beautiful glorious land that we have been given as a gift? What are we doing to it? I don’t really feel we are exploring these questions enough. There’s a lot of destruction, and I think that we have to face it: we’re losing our forests; the rivers have been polluted… What is difficult is that many people don’t want to look at the negative side and transform it by introspective exercise; they want to find the good things only that are happening. We have to use our memory wisely and I believe photography can assist us. It’s has great value.
I think the new work will explore the landscape. I’m asking more questions: « How do we relate to the aesthetics of the land », « what does it mean to us? », I want to be able to produce this perspective, and maybe other people will respond to it. I’d like to find a way to let this work travel more within Africa. Both « Who knows tomorrow » and what is coming up. There are important issues involved: our spiritual historical and political past, destruction of earth spirit, the rising soul force, and the labour that people have to go through to survive. I’m looking for the people of Africa making impressive and influential change on our society. The dreamers.
Will you add a text?
I should write something. I think it’s important to document our thoughts and achievements. I have to find the courage to write in order to add another dimension to the value of the work. Like from 2D to 3D.
Can you say a few words about aesthetics? Yesterday you said that you were looking to find the « right » aesthetics to let people read your images, whatever they are in Europe or in Africa.
I seem to attract friends who are creatively involved. The discussion I have with them, which I’m pushing more and more, is: what is our aesthetics? If you look at Chinese culture, for instance, they have a definite aesthetics, and they push it. We are so inundated at the moment by Western imagery, but also Indian imagery, Bollywood, Chinese films… We’ve got Nollywood as well, but I’m asking myself: « is Nollywood a true representation of us, is that what we’re really aspiring to? Because most of it is absolutely rubbish! Look at modern architecture in Africa: it’s disgusting! It’s concrete without a culture. A lot of time you see people pick up an American magazine, see a building in Florida and copy it. There is no application of African aesthetics because it doesn’t come from us. So we get these really ugly buildings: I’m tired of seeing them. So I love to take photographs of mud houses, I like to bring them into my pictures because I want people to see that there’s beauty in mud houses, that there is beauty in the earth. With it, you can build monuments that can last for centuries. It has been done, and it still exists. But there is nothing in concrete architecture that I can compare in beauty with what the earth has given. I don’t think that anybody can challenge me on that. And our people are great earth builders. Also, there is aesthetics in terms of symbolism: in Ghana we have the Adinkra symbols. Is it just a tradition? Or, are they something that we’re going to turn into a new language, into a new art form? Is it going to evolve, or is it going to stay where it is, just like the chieftaincy? In many respects, useless institutions. I’m questioning the aesthetics of the chieftaincy and traditions. I don’t agree with this system anymore. These are the institutions that have not served the people. They did not give the people power to defend themselves from intervention by Islam, Christianity, the Europeans, Arabs, wherever they have come from. This is supposed to be the space where the strength of the people
was to be supreme, ultimate, unshakable. How did we lose our culture so fast? How did we lose our people to slavery? Our chieftaincy and spirituality should hold within cultural aesthetics that influence the inner and outer world, positively. How did Christianity come to Africa if our spirituality was so strong? Because sometimes we hear Africans boosting about African spirituality… But, in my country, 90% of women are screaming and wheeling in churches, in concrete houses, giving all their money away, and getting fucked by the priest at the same time. So what happened to African spiritual science helping the people, guiding them, giving them what they understand – by representation of an aesthetics culture – saying: « This is who we are; we’re a strong people, I believe in myself, I believe in who I am ». « Does my culture have the power to give me the means to be a full human being, soulful and content, confident and contributing to humanity in a positive sense ». These are the questions I ask.
Do you feel alone?
No, I don’t think I’m alone. There’s a generation of us who are asking these questions. In part, it comes because we had to travel, to step away from our culture, either by choice or otherwise. For me it wasn’t by choice. I was a child when I was taken out of Africa, so I had to reconcile my multicultural existence and find myself. Now I know that I have a foundation that is Africa. The other part of me, that I bless, is that I grew up in a completely different environment. It has made me think in a very different way. You have to be an explorer to survive. In my teenage years, I used to be a very angry person because I didn’t understand what I was doing in England and the relationship between England and Ghana; what did I have to do with this? I was in a place where sometimes I had to fight for my life to be a person, to exist as a person. I was often confronted by ignorance. It came from my teachers, peers, strangers… also from institutions. So I had to fight against it. Now I look back: if I didn’t have that experience, I would not be sitting here today, I would not be thinking the things I think and dreaming the dreams I’m dreaming. So I feel it was a great thing that happened to me, because it allowed me to find the way to open my mind. It helped me rise into my consciousness.
How did you become involved in photography exactly?
Good question! In Accra I used to play rugby a little bit and one day a Scottish friend of mine, who was in the rugby team, was leaving the country. He said to me: « Look, I have this camera (it was a Ricoh XR10) for 20 years, if you want it, take it! » But, going back, when I was in school in England, I was about fifteen, there was a photo club and I decided to join it but, a couple of months later, they closed it because one of my mates was found processing nude pictures of his girlfriend! That was the end of the story and then I got the camera from my friend. So, maybe there was a calling: nature had a programme for me to have this experience of photography. Also, when I was a kid, I used to like taking photographs too. We had a Kodak Instamatic plastic camera. With that camera, I began my explorations, taking pictures of my friends when we used to go out to restaurants, clubs.. That’s how I began. In the beginning, I really liked playing with black & white films and then printing them on a colour processor to get sepia colours, and just experimenting! Soon, the camera was everywhere with me! Then, I decided to learn how to print, which I really enjoy. At the time I was running businesses, but I reached a point where I noticed that all my friends who used to come around were either journalists or artists. It wasn’t deliberate, it just happened. These were the people I felt inspired
by. I always wanted to be like them. I had a lot of respect for them because they expressed themselves and what they did moved the society. Then, a friend of mine, Rubio Ofori, who worked for a Dutch radio and local newspapers and magazines, invited me to do some pictures for her to be published. So to answer your question about how I began photography, I really should say that a camera fell out of the sky and I caught it. Dreams come true, you know. This was my beginning. The dream to be an artist and to express myself. Once I had accepted the camera gift, it then took some time to realise and accept myself as a photographer first and then as an artist. This mental transformation evolved over time maybe from 1998 to 2005/6. By 2007 I think I became convinced of myself. To be firm in my conviction about why I do what I do. Simply to express myself. From
this came the realisation of my authenticity. That my images were real in themselves. I now know for sure that what I do I have to do because I can’t act in any other way. I think for me, photography has been a major aspect of my self realisation. Becoming aware of my consciousness.
What happened then?
In the beginning, I was working more from a photojournalist point of view, but I was not trained as a photojournalist. I just knew that I really enjoyed using the camera and, because of the nature of my friends, I was evolving in that space.
Then, one of my friends asked me to work as a photo-editor in a newspaper he was setting up. I said: « Me?! » Because I really didn’t know anything! He had a sponsor and for one year we set up everything, the lab and all the equipment I needed. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, because I think I’d have been a terrible photo-editor!), the newspaper never worked…
I don’t know exactly, I think it was for political reasons. But I didn’t care; I was just involved in my photography. For one year, I had all this equipment to play with, so, whilst I was waiting for the newspaper to work, I was being paid, and I had cameras and films, and everything that I needed! It was 1993-1994. So, I began to learn photography proper. That’s my nature, if you give me a challenge, I’ll get into it. I looked at the magazines, fashion, politics, to understand how photo-editors choose their pictures and work. I think that Internet is a major teacher for me, the space where I found information about colour, black and white, developing, cameras, technique… The first Internet cafe was a five minute drive from my house, so every day, as soon as I finished work, at 4 o’clock, I went there and stayed till 6 o’clock, for nearly one year. This was my blessing: the Internet, the newspapers and lot of free time. Then, one of the best friends of the time, who worked in one of the top creative advertising agencies, asked me to take photographs for him. So I started doing some commercial photography, their clients were Shell, Liver brothers. I said: « You know, I don’t really have this experience, but if you give me the challenge, I’ll find the way! And, they said ok!
Was it well paid?
Pretty much… It was difficult getting the money out of them! For me, at the time, I considered myself to be well paid, you know, the fact somebody would give me money for photographs made me happy: I took photographs and somebody thought it worked well to even give me a contract! That meant a lot to me, especially for me self-esteem. Through this, I was discovering myself in the photographs. Having grown up outside of the culture, I was able to reconcile with it. I began to understand that I could use photography as a personal exploration of who I am within the context of the culture. How I related to the culture, aesthetically, spiritually, visually… If you look at my earlier works, you can see that I was exploring. I loved it. Photography allowed me to find myself in a deeper sense.
Do you often refer back to your old photographs?
Not very. Also, photography allowed me to enter places that maybe I wouldn’t have gone to.
I ended up renting a boat to look at Elmina castle from the sea. History: let’s talk about it through different perspectives. Photography allowed me to do that. To really get close, to be part of the story, of the unfolding history.
(Looking at a photograph)
When this picture came out in the lab, I realized the power of photography. I still remember the day I took it, the film… It’s one of my favourite of all time. It maybe nothing to somebody else, but for me there’s movement and texture, and it made me realize that I didn’t have to be obvious with the images, that I could actually introduce abstracts to express and move to another space.
When did your café – gallery open?
About ten years ago. We had photographic exhibitions, but also sculpture and painting shows. It was a space really for artists to come and engage with people who enjoyed being with artists, to collect art.
I wanted to create a space that I enjoyed going to, where we are free to express ourselves. I didn’t find anywhere in the city that I liked completely. I conceptualise it with Salassy Tettevie, who is one of the greater furniture designers that I know from Africa. He’s very innovative: the idea was to create a simple but aesthetically pleasing place using Afro-centric design, in such a way that it could be anywhere in the world and draw people and be acceptable to all cultures. We achieved this mission, in the sense that I reIate to my Panafricanism, a place where I should be able to express myself as an African person and, at the same time, be a part of the greater human picture. I’m not an isolationist. I don’t think it’s possible, I don’t think that all the cultures have evolved on this planet without having
been in touch with others. Otherwise, we would have a shell, not skin; we wouldn’t be able to have children together. So, the gallery and the cafe gave us that creative space. We started building it in 1998, it opened in 2000 and ended in 2001.
What was its name?
Nuku, which means « the seed of the house », or the other meaning is « the wonderful surprise » in Ewe language. Nuku a place where musicians and artists came to showcase. And we also explored African cuisine: every Wednesday we had Ethiopian food. We put grass on the floor… People were queuing to come in. Today, people are still asking me to open it again. One of the Ghanaian photographers who attended the last photo workshop in Accra, Kwabena « Jahwi » Danso, asked me too. I said we have to think about it, but it can’t be the same as what we had before, it need to evolve into something else.
Why did you stop?
It took all my energy. Now I observe people who own and run these kinds of businesses: they are people who don’t move. I’m a photographer, I’m moving. The nights were very late, it was very tiring, but I’m very grateful for this experience because for a moment, we were able to fill a space that was desperately needed and that is still needed today. Since Nuku stopped, nothing has replaced it.
In 1998 you exhibited in Bamako for the first time. How did you discover it?
The French photographer Guy Hersant came to Ghana and invited me. I’d just had my first exhibition in Accra, we were 3 photographers: Mr Aseidu, a Ghanaian photographer, who was working for the government, and Deborah Mestch, a young French photographer, and myself. It was called « Shadow and Act »: the work I did was about « general » Ghana. It was sponsored the US cultural office and it took place at the Library of US Information Service where they had an exhibition centre. That was a long time ago!
What were your first impressions of the Bamako’s Encounters?
I was amazed. I’d just had my first exhibition in Accra, and a little while later I was in Bamako, an international exhibition… It was outside my space, my national space. I met all these incredible photographers. I never thought that I’d be there… You know, at that time, I was just taking photographs, I wasn’t thinking exhibitions! Normally people came to my house, and I just showed them what I was doing. So Bamako was a big surprise. A wonderful experience.
What was your work about?
I produced a series at the Akotoku Boxing Academy. The reason I started taking an interest in that was that Ghana was proud of its gold-medal world boxing champions, who came from this place. The question was: why doesn’t anyone come back?! Because many of them make money from boxing. I made a story about this place, where children live also. Just looking at this aspect of life. It’s not something that I’d look at today because I’m not interested in violence anymore, but at that time I was fascinated by it.
That year a big exhibition of Ghanaian photographers took place in Bamako. Did you know all these photographers?
I knew Able (Gayvolor) at the time: I used to hang out with him all the time. He taught me about the dark room. Omanza Show… I saw photographers any time I could meet them. And I still do! (laughs). There were only two of us, Philip Kwame Apagya and me, who went to Bamako. I met there Santu Mofokeng, I spent a lot of time with him. It was very good. He spoke a lot with me about photography. We were in contact for a long time. I would like to see him again one day. I was a « small boy »! I also met Ananias Leki Dago for the first time, Peter Mc Kenzie, Pierrot Men… It was interesting to be in a discussion with all these photographers.
Since then, have your impressions changed? You exhibited in Bamako again in 2005 and you were there in 2007 too.
No, it’s a good place to meet people. The last time, in 2007, I didn’t take part in the exhibition but I went to observe. I don’t wait to be invited, have a hotel room and per diems… No! This festival is important enough to me to take ownership of it, by participating in my own right. You can just sit and complain all the time, or just find your way, and make it yours. That, for me, is the meaning of Bamako. Many people say that it is colonialist. But what isn’t right now, if we really want to go into the details…? We can argue that there are many arguments against this kind of institution. Everywhere in the world you can find people arguing about institutions. How do you deal with them? I think attitude makes a big difference. If you allow people to think you’re an object, they have the right to treat you like an object because you allow yourself to see yourself as an object. I don’t see myself as an object. I’m sitting on the top of the mountain…
I get the impression that your « Zetaheal » (3) work was really important for you. When you started taking photographs there, did you already know what kind of formal treatment would you use to restitute the atmosphere and the impressions you felt there? As a viewer, it’s striking to see how the formal shapes fit the content…
Yes, I was immediately in the space. The limitations of the space help to create the texture, the depths of field… I understood the limitations and I enjoyed them. I said: ok, this is where we are, let’s see how I can play with that ».
What were the limitations?
I started shooting at 3 o’clock in the morning because that’s when they started the service, very early in the morning. And to shoot without a flash in the night is limiting, and then you have to keep the same texture when the light is shifting, these limitations change… And, you have to keep it consistent! I think that Zetaheal was a real exercise in understanding the light, the subject, the distance, imagining in advance what the picture was going look like… It’s challenging making a piece!
Light is infinite, it’s so large. There is a German photographer – I’ve forgotten his name now – who spent twenty-five years taking photographs at a specific time of day, just purely to observe a certain light and to create art at that time. Light is so vast, you can spend a whole life exploring just an aspect of it. I’m a student of light, but sometimes I forget because I take it for granted that the light is there. But I do appreciate it: when I wake up, I love some light to come into the room, I don’t like the curtains to be closed. For me, light must come in its naturalness and I embrace it. It’s important for me, and Zetaheal is full of light.
Let’s go back to « Who Knows Tomorrow », the work you realized with Bruno Boudjelal in 2007, which was a commission from the French Embassy in Accra. A first exhibition of it took place at the Alliance française in Accra, in April 2008. How different is « Who Knows Tomorrow », exhibited in Brest?
« Who Knows Tomorrow » is the general structure, it’s Bruno’s work and mine. In Accra, the series I showed was different. I was looking at the village constructs, at the environmental effects, with a series on the beach. There was a series of portraits (that is still the same in the Brest exhibition) and a complete series on the Atlantic Hotel. A new series intituled « 1996 », shown in Brest, is more poetic, more « me trying to play with that poetry »…
What is the government position towards photography?
They need to show themselves, they need to come forth, be part of the process with us, and understand that photography is a very powerful medium.
I was struck to learn that Kwame Nkrumah invited Paul Strand to Ghana to work.
Yes, Kwame Nkrumah, like Roosevelt in America during the Depression with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), understood that power. Nobody else seems to share his position. It’s incredible. Photography is a tool that you can use. A friend of mine, a musician, told me few days ago that he used to hate photography because it’s about the past. I said « yes, there is that aspect, but the positive aspect is that you can look at the past, the past becomes tangible and you can raise questions and change your perspective. You can make decisions about tomorrow. Or, you can purely enjoy it for what it is. You don’t have to hold on to it. You can be not emotionally attached.
You were one of the two facilitators of the « Visa pour Bamako » workshop, organized by the French Embassy in Accra in April. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Definitely; the workshop was an emotional work. It wasn’t the first workshop that I’ve done with Bruno (Boudjelal). That was the 3rd one. We did two in 2007 for the Independence. There was a first part, mainly with Ghanaian photographers, and in the second part we invited some others from other countries of Africa. This one was more international with 19 photographers. It was challenging. In a sense, many of the photographers didn’t come prepared, maybe they did not understand the level of work that was expected of them as artists. And this, maybe, because a lot of the time, people have been patronized, they have been told that they are good artists, so sometimes they become lazy. At the beginning, as facilitators, we thought we had just to facilitate and run it. But it wasn’t the case. In fact, we hid the road. You know, sometimes there are balls tied to your feet and you can’t move. That is what we felt like. We had to find the way to remove the chains in a very short time and to raise their consciousness, to the point where we could see some positive action resulting, where we could see their esteem increasing, and we finally could see some artistic expression. Everyday at the workshop, I gave them a thought to meditate on for the day. For instance, we considered « success »: « what does it mean to be successful photographers? », « how do we achieve success? », « What is the mechanism of success? ». These are the things I want to explore as an artist, to look at, to meditate upon.
These are not the things they have been learning. We had discussions about authenticity, ingenuity, personal philosophy, who are you as an evolving artist, what is the photograph…
Were the exchanges dynamic?
Yes, everybody contributed. One of the guys told me that these concepts were so deep, that he didn’t really know what I was talking about. I said: that’s good, the fear you’re experiencing now means you’re beginning to awaken. If you go through this process, you will see that you are starting to ask yourself the right questions and move yourself into the right place. This is the place I want people to be. I think that it’s irrelevant to discuss a picture if you don’t have the mind to deal with the picture, to understand what the picture is to you, how to articulate the picture, your imagination, your vision… Many people don’t know how to articulate. And sometimes I find it difficult to articulate who I am vis-à-vis my work, so I can understand the situation. For me these are the important things, you have to lay
the foundations, and maybe this was the result of the first two workshops, realizing that we have expectations of all these people but the real problem is lack of experience, lack of self- education.
So, all these discussions were very interesting to you too…
Yes, of course, I had to able to give them my experience, to « prove », not just to say. I told them how things have worked for me. Our discussions were about responsibility, legacy, dedication, humanity, research. I spoke for a few days about why it’s important to do research; it gives you historical data, so you can make decisions. Conceptualisation, duality, functions, vanity, colours, shapes, clichés, parallels, ideas… We all took part in the discussions.
I came from this philosophical angle and Bruno lead them into understanding the quality of the work they have to produce, into understanding what it means to present works that are legible, that someone could read. Bruno is a very good in reading images. I was comfortable with these questions. The questions of prejudice, illusions, dreams, what s power, what is failure, poetry… One day I asked each of them to articulate their perceptions of borders, the theme f the next Bamako biennale… I just wrote notes. For instance, Germain (Kiemtoré) said that, to him, borders are two parallel stories with a common area. Other said that borders can be environmental, social, open to interpretation, something that is always in progress… And taboos, to move beyond the borders, breaking taboos, beliefs. I spoke a lot about belief systems: you cannot be a great photographer or an artist and say: « I don’t like Islam or Muslims »… and not have the courage to go inside a mosque and to talk someone about it, you need the information! You have to break your beliefs.
I remember Bruno once said to me that all these discussions would be too conceptual for them. I said: « No, we can’t say we’re Africans, so we are not going to have these discussions. We must have these discussions. We must find the way to articulate, whether we speak English, French, Swahili, Ga, or whatever… It was a good experience. They were simple ideas; they put us in a space to expand.
I think that without them, the art would be superficial. And if you ask artists to talk about their art, a lot of them were in a position in which they allow someone else to talk about their art. I say: « no, you have to express it, to stand up for your art ». The workshop has driven me to understand that I can give more, I’d like to do more, I love talking about these things. I’ve never got tired of talking about consciousness and art and expression! It’s one of the most exciting places that I’ve discovered!
I remember a quotation by Robert Erwin: « To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all, what we’re really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception; the heart of the artist is a tool to extend consciousness ». To me, this guy just said all! What it means to be an artist, why we’re here. How far can you shine your light? Where are you in your state of consciousness?

(1) The colonial castles and two prisons belong to the Museum too.

(2) « An exhibition of the work of twenty-four artists of multiple origins whose work in some way engages the tensions between Africa and the outside world, between tradition and modernity, between self and other.seeks to show how, despite popular perception, Africa’s long history of movement and exchange has unwittingly provided astonishingly fertile ground – for artists and audience alike. », extract from Meet Me Half Way, by Lesley Lokko.

(3) Zetaheal is a Ghanaian ecumenical community where Muslims and Christians work and pray and study together.This work was published in Afriphoto # 10 (2006, Filigranes / Africultures).

Invitations africaines
Bruno Boudjelal, Pascal Grimaud, Baudouin Maouanda, Nii Obodai, Abraham Oghobase, René Tanguy
Centre Atlantique de la Photographie
29th April – 30th June 2009 N° : 8978

Les images de l'article
The Passing - Alice Laughing, Who knows tomorrow 2009 © Francis Nii Obodai Provencal
The Passing - Shadows of a bird - Who knows tomorrow 2009 © Francis Nii Obodai Provencal
Atlantic Hotel - Stairs, Who knows tomorrow 2009 © Francis Nii Obodai Provencal
Widnaba Man, Who knows tomorrow 2009 © Francis Nii Obodai Provencal
French Man's Forest - Mud house Wall, Who knows tomorrow 2009 © Francis Nii Obodai Provencal

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