In the living room of his Berlin apartment, Emeka Okereke is attempting to explain Western hegemony using mime and an analogy about cups.
“It’s so difficult to tell somebody ‘I know that the cup looks like this, but it can also look like this,’” says the Nigerian-born photographer, shaking his head. “Because then the person will say, ‘I can understand that a cup can look like that but at the end of the day this is a cup.’”
He’s talking, of course, about ‘othering,’ the phenomenological concept that stirs groups or individuals to designate something as other because it’s not familiar to them. “It’s so difficult to dislodge,” Okereke admits. “It all goes back to the fact that the West succeeded for over 500 years in creating a situation where whatever is thought about in the West is the way that it is.”
Attempting to “dislodge” this attitude is something that the 39-year-old has dedicated his entire professional life to. Born in Aba, in the Eastern part of Nigeria, Okereke discovered photography at a unique time in the country’s history. “You have to understand that this was the beginning of the 21st Century,” he explains. “It was when democracy returned to Nigeria and there was this need to express all of a sudden.” As a child he’d watched as his heroes, such as the afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, were thrown in prison for speaking out against the military regime, but his generation were finally free to express themselves without fear of reprisals. “We felt like it’s the time to just explode with ideas and thoughts. For me, photography became a tool for social commentary.”
After a few months working for the photographer Uche James-Iroha, Okereke won the prize for ‘Best Young Photographer’ at the Bamako Festival of Photography. It gave him the opportunity to go to Bordeaux and Paris for a six-month artist residency, after which he got accepted to the School of Fine Arts Paris. It was there that Okereke discovered the extent to which Western thinking dominated the education system. “There was very little encouragement from my professors to go away from the normal thinking of the art world,” he recalls. “So when you say ‘art of the world’ you’re basically talking about European and Western art. But I was coming from a place where art was completely different.”
To challenge his professors, Okereke deliberately chose to create his final project in Maputo, Mozambique—a place about which they “didn’t have a clue.” After spending a few weeks on a ferry photographing commuters who were traveling back-and-forth from their homes to the mainland, Okereke staged an exhibition of his prints on the rails leading to the dock. By doing so he not only upended traditional colonial presets (“The center of production is in Africa or India and then the center of commerce is in London or Paris”), but also engaged local people in subtle conversation about aesthetics. “If you make a very powerful image that they can see some familiarity with, it forces them to engage with it, and by engaging with it they can start to have some conversations about it. Why did he choose to photograph this? How did he achieve this visual position?”
The project became a cornerstone for how the photographer would come to see his practice. “I began to realize that the work I would do as a photographer was more important in the continent than maybe in the West,” he explains. “I felt like there is so much that photography can do within the continent and then, of course, subsequently, there is so much that that photography can do for people in the West to open up their way of seeing.”
This commitment to Africa, even as he was at least partly living in Europe, led Okereke to co-found the not-for-profit organization Invisible Borders in 2009. Its flagstone project takes a revolving group of young African creatives—writers, photographers, and filmmakers—on an annual road trip through the continent. Last year, they attempted to travel from Lagos, Nigeria, to Maputo, Mozambique; a journey that would cause anyone with even a basic knowledge of geography and current affairs to raise an eyebrow. “Crossing the center of Africa is something that has historically been impossible,” he admits. “Today, it’s still like that because from Nigeria to Cameroon, from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s all conflict all the way. But we said to ourselves we’re going to try and do it anyway.”
It involved an expansive—and somewhat poetic—notion of the road. “This trip we had to travel by car, speedboat, and plane,” Okereke explains. “Earlier in the Invisible Borders project the road has been a physical, tangible thing, but after so many years we’ve gone onto the conceptual, metaphorical form of the road as something that is precarious and can throw anything at you—especially in the African context.” Along the way they created work that they shared with each other in weekly critiques and to their followers via the Invisible Borders app.
Finding Pockets of Beauty in the Everyday
A selection of Emeka Okereke's work
When asked if the project is aimed at combating the so-called ‘poverty porn’ images of African countries, Okereke chooses his words carefully. “Certainly, when it comes to photography, I’m very particular how Africa is portrayed,” he replies. “But again, I am very much aware of the fact that if you speak directly against something you become part of it because no matter what happens it goes back to the fact that there is an economy that is being sustained and those who are fighting for and against it are part of that economy.”
Instead, with his own images and with the images he encourages from the artists he mentors, Okereke chooses to focus on the “pockets of beauty” that can be found every day in each one of the 54 countries that make up the African continent. If he has an overall mission, it’s for young Africans to reconnect with their environs—which colonialism, historically, has worked to disconnect them from—while avoiding creating dichotomies between East and West. “It’s all our world,” summarizes Okereke with characteristic straightforwardness. “We belong to it.”
Emeka Okereke is an award-winning photographer living between Lagos and Berlin. To see more of his work, you can visit his website. The Invisible Borders-curated exhibition ‘Re-imagining Futures: A Trans-Nigerian Conversation,’ will open February 9 – March 9, 2019, at the Railway Corporation Yard in Yaba, Lagos. For more information check out the Invisible Borders website or follow them on Instagram.